DESS - Experts for Nature

Apr 02

Badger’s Lichenological Adventures

This survey season members of the team are starting to specialise in their chosen areas, and so some of our future blogs will highlight what each of us has been up to. Last week one of the team, Badger Taylor, joined expert lichenologists Andy Acton and Brian Coppins on a survey of the lichens of Grudie Oakwood in Ross-shire for the Forestry Commission. 

Lichens are amazing things; symbiotic organisms made up of a fungus, which provides the shape of the lichen, and a photosynthetic part, usually an alga, but sometimes a cyanobacteria, and even occasionally both. They are useful ecological indicators and Scotland has some of the best lichen communities in Europe.

Sgurr a’Mhuilinn and Loch a’Chuilinn - view from Grudie Oakwood.

Lichen communities differ on the mild, humid west coast, and the colder, drier east coast, but Grudie Oakwood appeared to straddle these areas, with lichens from both areas present. This made for an extremely diverse site.

Bunodophoron melanocarpum - “Black-eyed Susan”

Initially we found lots of Bunodophoron melanocarpum growing on the acidic bark of old birch trees. This lichen is called “Black-eyed Susan” and has downward-facing fruits that produce sooty black spores.

Degelia plumbea- Felt lichen

We found a beautiful patch of the plum-fruited felt lichen Degelia plumbea growing at the base of another old birch where the humidity was very high, and the bark more alkaline due to an old wound.

Fuscopannaria ignobilis - Caledonian pannaria: a bit hard to make out but it is the dark grey crust in the middle of the photo

An exciting find was the Caledonian pannaria; a dark grey crust-forming lichen that usually starts life deep in the crevices of mature ash bark. It’s a nationally scarce species, and may become even rarer if mature ash trees start succumbing to Ash Dieback Disease. Happily, the one we found was growing in a crevice on a very old oak tree rather than an ash.

An Entish oak, with a very special lichen onboard!

The oak in the picture above is a veteran tree, resembling an Ent, with a huge diversity of lichens and mosses growing on it. One of these lichens was a tiny, jet-black pinhead lichen, with an glittering yellow-green dust on it’s fruits. This was Calicium adspersum, known from only two sites in the rest of Britain, and this was the first record for Scotland!

Platismatia norvegica - The Old-growth Rag Lichen under a microscope.

Many lichens cannot be confidently identified in the field, so our evenings were spent peering down microscopes and using keys and chemical tests to identify the more difficult species. The lichen above is one that looks very similar to a very common lichen called Platismatia glauca, but under the microscope you can see a network of pale ridges that identifies it as the much rarer P. norvegica, a species confined to old-growth forests in North-west Scotland.

I’m very grateful to Andy Acton and Brian Coppins for having me tag along with them whilst surveying. It was a fascinating insight into professional lichenology. I hope to develop my lichen identification skills further in the future, and with financial help from the Edinburgh Natural History Society I will be attending a week-long course in lichenology at Kindrogan Field Centre, and then joining the British Lichen Society for their spring field meeting in South-west Ireland later this month.

Anthony “Badger” Taylor

Mar 27

Wildcats and Camera Trapping in the Cairngorms

Earlier in March the team ventured up to the Cairngorms National Park for some training in wildcat identification and camera trapping.

There is general agreement among conservation organisations and research groups that the Scottish wildcat population is in a critical position. The main threat to the population is hybridisation with feral and domestic cats, altering the genetics of the species. This leads to changes in appearance and potentially, with further hybridisation, changes in behaviour.

In 2013 Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) published the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan. The document presents an outline of suggested projects that will attempt to stop the decline of the Scottish wildcat in target areas. In addition to this, SNH is looking to expand on current knowledge of wild, feral, and hybrid cat distribution in Scotland by collecting photographic records. And so, the DESS team headed north for some camera trap practice.

At the SNH headquarters in Inverness, the team was given an introduction to the project by Fiona Strachan, Scottish Wildcat Conservation Project Development Officer, and wildlife ecologist Jenny Bryce. SNH loaned the team a set of Cuddeback cameras to use during the week, and with local knowledge, Desmond Dugan of the RSPB kindly helped us find locations for the cameras which were left in place for two nights.


Helen and Thomas set up one of the cameras


A Cuddeback camera trap in position

While the camera traps were out (and hopefully filming!) the team visited the Highland Wildlife Park in Kincraig to learn more about wildcat ecology, the current situation, and the Park’s own wildcats, from Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections.


One of the wildcats being a good model at the Highland Wildlife Park

This was also an opportunity to practice using the pelage scoring system, which involves giving seven coat characteristics a rating of 1-3 and is used to separate wildcats from feral or domestic tabby cats.

The trip was well timed, and fell on 3 days of stunning weather so there were opportunities for some bird ID in the pine forests and on various lochs.


The team were treated to good views of divers and crested tits among various other species during the trip

In the short time frame that the cameras were out, no cats were seen, but there was activity from roe and red deer as well as badger and fox, and many of the team are keen to try longer spells of camera trapping in other areas in the hope of providing much needed records.


One of the cameras captured this nice portrait of a roe buck

Many thanks to SNH and the RSPB for their help and advice. All in all it was a great few days with a lot learned and beautiful weather to top it all off! 


Loch Morlich at sunset

Mar 19

Up close with microscopes

Over the past few months the DESS team have been learning how to identify specimens using microscopes.

First up was mammal skulls with Dr Jerry Herman, Senior Curator of Vertebrates at National Museums Scotland.  This led on from a very enjoyable and fascinating visit to the specimen collection at the museum.  Jerry brought a selection of skulls for us to identify, and many of the smaller examples required microscopic examination to determine their species.


All the mustelids: weasel, stoat, polecat, mink, pine marten, otter and badger (Photo by Anthony Taylor)


Brandt’s bat teeth (Photo by Helen Simmons)

Then Sarah McBride, a previous DESS trainee now working as an Assistant Ecologist for URS Corporation, came in to the DESS office for a couple of days to share her knowledge and enthusiasm for bryophytes (mosses, liverworts and hornworts).  There are many similar looking species and so microscopes are invaluable for viewing the minute differences between them.


Sarah and Claudia discuss moss identification with Helen. (Photo by Mike Beard)


Lunularia cruciata. A thalloid liverwort with female receptacle in centre-left (Photo by Adam Butler)

Lastly, Glenn Norris came along to give us an introduction to identifying spiders.  Glenn is also a previous DESS trainee, who has joined Caledonian Conservation Ltd as an Assistant Ecologist.  We all got stuck into the challenge of positioning the spiders and lighting in just the correct way to see their distinguishing features.


Glenn helps Ben and Thomas key out a spider. (Photo by Mike Beard)


The epigyne of a Pardosa amentata spider (Photo by James Allison) 

Jan 20

Cathkin Marsh Snipe Counts


Jack Snipe (Lymnocryptes minimus). Photographed by Mike Beard.

Over the winter we have mostly been busy in the office learning business skills, writing up survey reports and giving presentations on a range of native mammal species but we have also been over to the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Cathkin Marsh reserve to help with snipe counts. 


James and Adam discussing ecological consultancy business ideas. Photograph by Mike Beard.

We first visited the reserve in December and recorded 77 common snipe and 32 jack snipe. As well as many other species including water rail, grey wagtail, fieldfare and teal.

The 32 jack snipe in December was a new record high for Cathkin Marsh and suggests that the marsh is an important overwintering site for this species. This is likely due to the small herd of cattle present on the marsh over the summer months. The cattle poach the ground and graze the vegetation, creating a more favourable mixed habitat for the jack snipe that require both areas of long vegetation to shelter in and areas of open ground for foraging.


Dess team, Cathkin ranger and local volunteers counting snipe. Photography by Mike Beard

Several of the team returned to the reserve to help Iain Livingstone from the Clyde Ringing Group with ongoing research in migration patterns. 10 jack snipe were ringed on this visit and 14 on a previous visit in November. From these ringing sessions it is clear that a large number of first year jack snipe (born summer 2013) are using the reserve and it was also found that jack snipe were putting on weight in preparation for migration. Future recaptures of these ringed jack snipe will provide valuable information on their migration patterns.

This was also an excellent opportunity to see these beautiful birds up close and to learn about their fascinating plumage and moult patterns.


Jack Snipe wing. Photograph by Anthony Taylor.

We learnt that the white tips on the flight feathers on this juvenile jack snipe are the result them being bleached by the continuous 24 hour sunlight in their distant Arctic breeding grounds.

Up close we could see that the jack snipe had spectacular iridescent purple/blue feathers on their rumps. It is thought that these bright feathers help pairs of jack snipe to locate each other during the breeding season. Furthermore, we saw that snipe have flexible tips to their bills which is an adaptation that lets them feel in the mud for prey items before pulling them to the surface.

The team returned to Cathkin Marsh again in January to conduct a second count and to further hone our surveying skills. This time we recorded 36 common snipe and 18 jack snipe as well lots of other interesting wildlife including water rail, sparrowhawk, kestrel, field voles, brown hare, fox and otter signs and a weasel!

Snipe numbers are recorded at Cathkin Marsh monthly throughout the winter by the ranger and a dedicated team of local volunteers. This data is submitted to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) as part of the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBs).

Follow this link to learn more about Cathkin Marsh

Oct 30

Scottish Beaver Trial visit



Surveying for beaver signs from the boat.

Back at the start of the October, the DESS team travelled to Knapdale to help carry out surveys for the Scottish Beaver Trial.  

“The Scottish Beaver Trial is a partnership project between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) and host Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) to undertake a time-limited, five-year trial reintroduction of Eurasian beavers (Castor fiber) to Knapdale, Mid-Argyll.”

The 5 year trial started in 2009 when the first beavers were released in Knapdale and the project will be coming to an end in 2014. To read more about the success of the Scottish Beaver Trial and all that has happened over the past years, visit the excellent Scottish Beaver Trial website at:


 Beaver foraging signs

While at Knapdale the DESS team learnt how to conduct beaver activity surveys and riparian sweeps for field signs from the Field Operations Manager Roisin Campbell-Palmer and Field Officer Robert Needham.

Conducting these surveys allowed the team to practice using rugged Trimble PDA devices for digitally mapping field signs in ArcPad. Typical field signs include foraging activity as seen in the photo above, as well as; feeding stations, tracks, scent mounds, burrows, lodges and canals and many other signs of activity.


Beaver lodge


Frank the beaver swimming off with his newly attached satellite tracker.

We were also lucky enough to observe one of the beavers (Frank) being captured for a health check, fitted with a satellite tracking device and released again.

The satellite tracking device records GPS locations as well as temperature and pressure, this information gives insight into the beavers behaviour and habitat use and allows the staff at the beaver trial to keep track of the location of the beavers.

During the week at Knapdale the team also carried out surveys of beaver canals in order to compare the diversity of aquatic invertebrates and plants found in older and more recently formed canals.  

While conducting these surveys we found many  species of aquatic plants including broad-leaved pondweed (Potamogeton natans), water mint (Mentha aquatica) and marsh pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris) as well as many interesting aquatic invertebrates such as this beautiful black darter dragonfly (Sympetrum danae).


Black darter dragonfly

The team are already looking forward to putting the skills learnt during this week at Knapdale to good use in August 2014 when we will be surveying beavers in the Tayside area.

After our hard work at the beaver trial the team ventured over the Atlantic Ocean to the Isle of Seil, and the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s internationally renowned reserve, Ballachuan Hazelwoods. 


Liz looks back over at the Scottish mainland after crossing the Atlantic Bridge onto the Isle of Seil.

The reserve is famous for its high diversity of lichens. This beauty is Pannaria rubiginosa, a lichen that demands high levels of humidity and clean air that is in abundance on the west coast of Scotland.


Pannaria rubiginosa

We also found the incredibly rare hazel gloves fungus (Hypocreopsis rhododendri). This fungus is only found on dead hazel stems in ancient hazelwoods, and in Scotland is restricted to a few remnant habitats on the west coast. It parasitises another specialist hazel fungus, the glue crust (Hymenochaete corrugata), which catches falling deadwood and glues it to the hazel tree.


Hazel gloves fungus

As well as lush lichens and fungi, we were also lucky enough to spot an otter (Lutra lutra); the perfect end to the week!

Oct 28

Meet our newest trainee

Hi! My name is Adam Butler and I’m the latest entry to the DESS team. I left my home city of Belfast in 2008 to study Zoology at the University of Glasgow. I got through a lot of subjects I was passionate about while at university but eventually landed on my original fascination for wild biology and more importantly the threats that it currently faces.

I spent the spring and summer this year volunteering with SWT as assistant ranger and seabird monitor on Handa Island (Thomas had laid the groundwork for me!) and as reserves assistant at Loch of the Lowes. I took these opportunities to learn as many botanical and surveying skills as I could and as a result I had the privilege of joining the DESS team late in the course this September. I was totally overwhelmed to receive this opportunity and I mean to carry the skills it gives me through a career in consultancy, policy advising and maybe even one day taking advice as a policy-maker myself.

I’m very impressed by the knowledge and experience of everyone else on the course and I have been doing my best to catch up!

Sep 18

Highland Scrub Habitat Surveys


View from one of the survey transects at Creag Meagaidh.

Last week, the DESS team travelled to the Highlands to carry out Highland scrub habitat surveys for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).  The results from these surveys will be used by the BTO as part of a long-term study looking at the effect of the natural regeneration of woodland on the populations and diversity of breeding birds found there.

It is thought that overgrazing by large herbivores such as red deer and sheep has been the primary cause of the lack of tree regeneration in Scottish uplands in the past 150-200 years.  As a result, by the late 20th century, most of the remnants of forest consisted only of old trees, because all of the seedlings were eaten before they could grow to more than a few centimetres in height.

The population of red deer has increased drastically over the past 50 years, and in the absence of any natural predators to control the growing numbers, the only tree seedlings to grow successfully have been those inside fenced areas or in remote locations inaccessible to grazing animals.

In response to this, conservation efforts have been made to enable the natural regeneration of woodland in a number of areas of upland Scotland. Populations of large herbivores have been managed in order to reduce grazing pressure so that saplings may, once again, have the opportunity to grow into healthy, mature trees. 

Since 1996, the BTO has undertaken periodic censuses of breeding birds in sample areas of regenerating pine and birch in eastern and central Scotland. Over time, data from the bird and vegetation surveys will be analysed and reviewed with the aim of discovering what effect the natural regeneration of woodland will have on the changes in birds, habitat, and their associations.

James Bray from the BTO joined the DESS team for a couple of days surveying. We used GPS devices to locate precise points along transects at 100m intervals and then recorded the vegetation within a 25m radius of these points.


James hasn’t quite mastered the art of posing.

At each point, we recorded what species of tree were present and what size they were. In addition we gathered data on the presence of other vegetation such as heather, blaeberry, bog myrtle and bracken.


Estimated ground coverage of bracken was recorded at each point on the transect.This particularly striking individual was a nice find! 


Helen and Ben estimating the percentage cover of heather and blaeberry at a point on the Inshriach transect.


Not part of the survey, but this garden ‘cross’ spider (Araneus diadematus) was worth taking a moment to check out!

A week of clambering up and down heather-covered hillsides left the team in need of a good weekend’s rest!

Aug 23

The Scottish Leisler’s Project

Radio-tracking Leisler’s bats on Arran

Two days after returning from Handa Island the team quickly prepared for what was to be an adventurous and nocturnal two weeks on the Isle of Arran assisting with The Scottish Leisler’s Project. The species’ presence on the island was only discovered in 2012 so the aim of this visit was to find out more about their ecology, including their movements, what roosts they use, and importantly, whether they are breeding. 

On route to the ferry terminal, news had reached the team that bat experts John Haddow, Stuart Spray, Tomasz Kokurewicz and Sam Dyer (who had all arrived one day prior to the team) had already caught two male and one female Leisler’s bats right outside Brodick Castle. The bats were successfully fitted with radio transmitters and it was the DESS team’s job to start radio-tracking as soon as possible.


'Brodick', the first male Leisler's caught.  Both the males had unusual white tips on their ears (photo credit - John Haddow).

As soon as the team arrived, introductions were made and those new to radio-tracking quickly learned how to use the equipment.  The team then worked through the night until 7am.  Thereon-in there was no rest for the wicked!



Mike and Liz shows us how it’s done having had previous radio-tracking experience (photo credit - Mike Beard).


Tomasz, James, Thomas and Helen track the tagged female Leisler’s bat until dawn (photo credit - Stuart Spray).

The bats were also allocated appropriate names.  The first bat caught was named Brodick; most fitting as he roosts right outside Brodick Castle.  The next two bats caught (another male and a non-lactating female) were named Glen and Rosa respectively, as they appeared to feed in the Glen Rosa campsite.

As the radio-tracking continued so did the efforts in trying to catch a lactating female Leisler’s bat. The bats that were already tagged were not leading the team to a maternity roost and so, if the team were to catch a lactating female, it would be provide strong evidence that there would be a breeding population of Leisler’s bats on Arran.  Mist nets were erected every night, including a very successful triple-high net and smaller ones complete with sonic lures to attract the bats.  The triple-high net proved most effective as on the first night three male Leisler’s bats were caught, they were marked and released as there was still hope of catching a female.

A number of other species were caught and released during the mist netting: Brown Long-eared bat (Plecotus auritus), Natterer’s bat (Myotis nattereri), Daubenton’s bat (Myotis daubentonii), Soprano Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmeus) and Common Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus). This gave those on the team working towards a bat license a chance to practise handling techniques and for the team to learn how to identify and sex bats in the hand.


Badger and Ben tracking ‘Rosa’ at Glen Rosa campsite.


Helen takes a photograph of one of the male Natterer’s bats before releasing it.


One of the male Natterer’s bats caught and released (photo credit to Helen Simmons).

After a week of tracking, the male bats’ movements appeared to be fairly predictable and the transmitter on ‘Rosa’ was intermittent before it stopped working, or likely, fell off.  Eventually the bats didn’t seem to move at all and it was concluded that all the transmitters had fallen off. This assumption was proved correct when Anne Youngman from BCT spotted Brodick’s transmitter at the bottom of his tree whilst looking for bat droppings!


The team also completed a number of transects around the island - results of which were analysed on the last two days (pictured above) with a little help from caffeinated hot beverages.

Despite no maternity roosts or lactating females being found, the fieldwork on Arran was a great success.  Important data on the behavioural ecology of Leisler’s bats has been collected and the team gained valuable skills in bat fieldwork and radio-tracking techniques.


The team pose with the minibus before departing the island, hopefully not for the last time!

Aug 05

Handa Island

From the 12th to the 20th of July the team travelled to one of the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s more remote reserves; Handa Island, off the west coast of Sutherland. Handa is famous for its spectacular seabird cliffs, but we were going to investigate some of the other interesting plant and animal groups on the island, including unconfirmed reports of hedgehogs.

Our first challenge was getting to the island. The ferrymen did a great job of managing to transport all of us, our survey equipment, tents, bags and food for the week in one trip.

The team took part in monitoring for notable plants on the island, including these small adder’s tongue ferns (Ophioglossum azoricum).

Some interesting lichens were found in the sheltered parts of the island, such as this Lobaria amplissima. This lichen (lichens are symbiotic organisms, usually consisting of a fungus and alga) has grey-green lobes containing an alga, and brown outgrowths containing photosynthetic cyanobacteria.  The brown outgrowths are called cephalodia, and they can drop off the parent lichen and continue a separate existence as a different lichen species, Dendriscocaulon umhausense.

While the rest of Scotland sweated in a heat-wave, Handa’s weather was decidedly less clement with rolling mists, drizzle and strong winds. We’re a hardy bunch though, and the weather was not enough to put us off of botanical surveying.

Our portable moth trap caught 11 species of moth despite the rough weather. This beauty is a green carpet (Colostygia pectinataria).

No visit to Handa would be complete without having a look at the seabird colonies. These puffins (Fratercula arctica) and razorbills (Alca torda) were often seen at the tops of the cliffs and stacks.

Handa is also an important breeding ground for great skuas (Stercorarius skua) and arctic skuas (Stercorarius parasiticus). This bonxie, nicknamed Betty, was a regular visitor to the ranger’s bothy.

Despite having hedgehog tunnels (which collect the footprints of any animal that wanders into it) distributed across the island, we were unable to detect the presence of hedgehogs on Handa, though we did get some pygmy shrew (Sorex minutus) tracks. Nor did we have any luck with small mammal trapping. However we did get some great data on notable plants, some new lichen records, a recording of a common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) on our Anabat, and the team got some excellent experience of seabird monitoring from the volunteers on Handa.

Many thanks to Handa’s ranger, Paul MacDonald, the hard-working volunteers and the ferrymen for getting us safely on and off the island.

Jul 23

BTO Mountain Transect Survey, Bridge of Orchy

Firstly, apologies for the quiet blog space recently, the survey season has swept us all up in style. Updates on our recent week of surveys on Handa Island as well as our upcoming adventures with the bats on Arran will be coming soon.

Before all of that began though, the team carried out a Mountain Transect Survey for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in June to record upland birds. The survey is done by volunteers and is designed to help understand where species are and how their distribution might be changing, particularly in relation to issues such as climate change and land use.

The BTO provided us with two transect routes near Bridge of Orchy. One covering Beinn Dorain and Beinn an Dothaidh and the other on Beinn Achaladair, which are all Munros between 1000 and 1100m. The team split into three groups to cover the transects and the day gave us all an opportunity to practice using maps and GPSs to follow our routes.

Claudia and Thomas discuss the transect route on Beinn Achaladair.

In true Scottish fashion we started the day plastering on the sun cream and ended up in waterproofs! Thankfully we got a lot done before the weather closed in and were treated to some fantastic views.

James scans the area.

The bird species recorded on the survey included Meadow Pipit, Wheatear, Ring Ouzel (a first for some!), Raven, and some of the team were even lucky enough to spot that iconic upland bird, the Ptarmigan! Helen managed to snap a picture of the well camouflaged duo.

Spot the Ptarmigan! (Lagopus mutus)

They are the only birds in Britain which turn completely white in winter and are referred to as ‘Snow Chickens’ in North America. Next time you’re in the hills keep an ear open for their recognisable croaking call which you can listen to here

Would you like to try an upland bird survey? The BTO Mountain Transect Surveys are done by volunteers and you don’t have to be a skilled birder to do them! If you’d like to combine some walking in the beautiful highland landscape and help record important sightings of our upland bird species then maybe you’d like to try a transect of your own next year. Here is a link to more information on how to take part and free resources including simple bird ID guides for upland species

Whilst making our way to the start of our transects we spotted a few nice plant species too such as Dwarf Willow, Stag’s horn Clubmoss, Alpine Meadow-rue and lots of Alpine Lady’s-mantle.

Some Dwarf Willow (Salix herbacea) showing off it’s startling red seed capsules, a food plant for Ptarmigan.

Badger and Thomas pass a patch of Alpine Lady’s-mantle (Alchemilla alpinewhich was widespread on the mountain slopes.

We also came across a little bit of Juniper (Juniperus communis) on Beinn Achaladair. Juniper is under serious threat in Britain and Plantlife Scotland is calling on people to take part in a Scottish Juniper Survey. If you’re interested in getting involved there is more information on the Plantlife website at

Don’t forget to check up on the blog again soon to find out about the team’s week on Handa Island!