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Dragonflies – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

golden ringed dragonflyIt is many years since the naturalists in the Highlands diverted their attention from the very popular birds or wildflowers.  Slowly the remarkable  insects of the Highlands started to become  popular and to start with it was the moths.  Very many more species than the butterflies and some comparatively difficult to identify.  One advantage of them was the ability  to catch them and study them in the garden using a lamp and other harmless means to attract them.  Then this was followed by another fascinating group with an intriguing life history, the dragonflies.   Some of the dragonflies are also very attractive such as the  photograph of the golden ringed dragonfly that has a 100mm wing span.   Partly through the enthusiasm of a few local naturalists and the increasing role of the British Dragonfly Society, the interest in dragonflies started to gather momentum.  In a way it culminated in the Societies outstanding “Atlas of Dragonflies in Britain and Ireland”.  The atlas served to highlight the potential of the Highlands and the fact that not only were there many rarities but also some  outstanding sites to be found that no one had recorded before.

Of course a few outstanding sites had long been known through the efforts of the very few local dragonfly enthusiasts and three of them are meccas for enthusiasts.  Two are close to Inverness with one being  a comparatively small site at Loch Bran near Foyers on the west side of Loch Ness.   This has the ideal combination of shallow and deep margins with a great deal of floating, emerging  and submerging plants and is well sheltered by woodland, ideal conditions for a range of dragonflies with over 10 breeding species.    It is also very close to a minor road which helps access.   A much larger area with several sites is Glen Affric to the south east of  Inverness.  One good site here, again very small, is the Corrie Loch which is on one of the  Forestry Commission’s walkways and routes to enable access.   I once  saw a hobby  over the Corrie Loch catch and eat a  large dragonfly in flight.  It would have been a hobby from Scandinavia rather than  from one of the few breeding in the south of the UK.   Then there is the area at the west end of Loch Maree near the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve  at Kinlochewe.

As for Glen Affric the latest good news is from the October issue of the British Dragonfly  Societies (BDS) Newsletter which came to me via e-mail last week.  It outlines the 2016 stage of the management  for dragonflies in Glen Affric and an open invitation to all would be  volunteers who would like to take part.   Glen Affric supports a number of BDS Priority Sites and they include three dragonflies that are Endangered, Vulnerable and Near Threatened species on the world Red List.  These are, in order, the white faced darter, azure hawker and the northern emerald.    The sites have suffered from unsympathetic management in the past but the BDS, in partnership with the Forestry Commission Scotland, Trees for Life, the National Trust for Scotland and North Affric Estates are working together to change all this.     A series of practical tasks  will begin at the end of October.  The aim is to work with volunteers on sites which were  previously used as forestry plantations, blocking the drainage ditches to retain the water and remove small trees that would dry out the wetland, thus starting the natural peatland process.   If you are interested in helping with this vital and interesting  work for the future of the Highland dragonflies then contact the British Dragonfly Society ( Telephone  01933 3897 748 )

Sika Deer – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

sika deerIt was this time last year when I last saw a group of sika deer in Strathnairn, just south of Inverness, where I live.   As usual I  just presumed that they originated from Strathdearn, the next strath south where they were introduced many years ago.  Now, after reading two books by G. Kenneth Whitehead I have my doubts as to their origin.   Their introduction to Strathdearn was in about 1900, the first introduction of this deer into Inverness-shire.  Mr. William D. Mackenzie brought them in from his deer park at Fawley Court in Buckinghamshire and turned them out at Glenmazeran and Glenkyllachy.   This was normal practice for landowners and had the advantage that deer in other parts of Britain could be in good condition to cope with the severe weather they could face in the Highlands.   In those days deer were brought in for three  main reasons.  One was  just for showing off in the deer park, whilst another was for fresh meat, in other words venison, and the other for sport.   The sika in Strathdearn did not have a good time as  they suffered from the severe weather in some  winters.    After the sale of Glenmazeran in 1929 many  of the  sika deer were shot and by 1949 it was thought they were extinct.  However, within ten years they started to reappear again which is a sign as to how secretive they can be in the woodland they prefer so much rather than the open hill like red deer.   Interestingly,  their offspring are  still there, along with red deer and roe deer.

The two estates in Strathdearn are about eight miles south of Strathnairn so where are the other  introductions of sika deer in this part of the Highlands?  By far the nearest is at Aldourie Castle estate that lies just over six miles south of Inverness, at the head of Loch Ness.  It is about seven miles west of Strathnairn.  At the same time, around 1900,  as the introduction of sika deer to Strathdearn eight sika deer were introduced  to Aldourie.  They were brought down from the huge, 2,000 acre, and famous deer park at Rosehall in  Sutherland where in 1923 there were no less than 150 red deer, 200 fallow deer, 40 roe deer and 50 fallow deer.  This was very unusual to have all these deer species in a park as fallow were normally  the favourite for deer parks followed by red deer.  The sika at Aldourie did much better than  the ones in Strathdearn which is not surprising  as the weather was influenced by Loch Ness and the nearby sea would have been much milder that in the Monadhliath hills of Strathdearn.   From this original Aldourie introduction the sika  spread remarkably and by 1933 were  along the whole of the east side of Loch Ness as far south as Glendoe.  Then, by 1960, they had spread even further reaching Fort Augustus and had reached Aberchalder and Culachy.   In 1949 there were reports of Sika at Corriegarth and at Brin,   near Farr.  It could still be tempted to think that the Strathnairn sika had come from the introduction into Strathdearn but there is a  simple  reason they did not take this route.  I can see the reason from the window of my study as on the far side  of the strath are  bare hills between here and Garbole in Strathdearn.   Sika deer are essential woodland deer and so the bare hills  have been a barrier to them.  So the sika deer I see in this strath would have originated from the Aldourie Castle  estate, via Rosehall in Sutherland.

Butterfly Update 2 – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Saturday, September 3rd, 2016

large-white-butterflySo, eventually, last week some sunshine and higher temperature arrived.  In the garden Buddleias, Sedums, Scabious, heathers and mints were all in flower as if waiting for the butterflies.   I expected at least small tortoiseshells  and peacocks but neither turned up and there were only three butterflies on all of the nectar sources.  Two of the butterflies were a surprise as they were speckled woods and they seemed to alternate between the Buddleias and the mints.   This essentially woodland butterfly has been one of the few success stories for  butterflies.  In the 1970s it colonised most of Moray and in the early 1990s it spread through Easter Ross and Sutherland.  Since 2000 it has colonised some areas of Caithness and north central Sutherland – success indeed.

The other butterfly was a single large white and you can get an idea of its size by the photograph of the one in the garden as it takes nectar from a cascade of Buddleia  blossoms.  This is the  legendary “cabbage white” disliked by gardeners for the damage the caterpillars do to “greens”.    However, despite its reputation it is an interesting  species as it   sometimes migrates to us in extremely large numbers.  There are records of  vast swarms numbering millions coming from the continent.  There is an old record for  Norfolk of an estimated six million large whites being caught on the sticky leaves of insectivorous sundews.  On a much smaller  scale I remember being on the east coast of the Highlands and seeing great swarms of large whites coming over the sea.  They landed  onto the sand and mud, exhausted and were gobbled up by numerous gulls that had gathered for the feast.  Afterwards the shoreline was littered with  layer of  white wings after the gulls had neatly taken the bodies.

Back in the garden I was still trying to find any  more butterflies as surely with the high temperatures there should have been more.  However, what was far more than compensation was a small moth fluttering, as only moths can, on the  Buddleias.  It was small, being only about 40 mm across the wings, but it had tell-tale markings on its wings.  This is one of the moths I always look forward to seeing each year and its name comes from the tiny silvery mark on each on its forewings.    It looks like a silver Y although some people says it is like the symbol for the Greek alphabet gamma that also looks like a Y.   Great numbers of silver Y moths appear from the Continent  in some years and one person in Essex catching moths at night with a  trap recorded 7,398 of silver Y’s in one night.   The early  migrants in the spring give rise to a second generation in the summer and these are recorded as far north as  Shetlands and Orkney.   The silver Y flies, unusually, at night as well as by day so why not go out tonight and see if there are any on blossoms in your garden?   There is another unusual fact about the silver Y moth as the males have small tufts of hair on their abdomen and these protrude during courtship and release chemicals called  pheromones that attract the females.

As I write the sunshine is still here and the temperatures still up and this morning  along the roadside verge  was a Scotch argus, a typical roadside verge butterfly.    So perhaps there are more butterflies still  to come such as the meadow brown.  One favourite of mine that should be around is the common blue with the males that bright blue that is almost indescribable.  The females lay their eggs   on bird’s foot trefoil and it is well worth looking as they are laid singly and are very bright shining white.