Green travel to green places

In search of climate and wildlife stories…by bike

More paths to nature please — June 29, 2012

More paths to nature please

Here’s the quote of the week from my 6-year-old son when we had to get off and walk up a short steep section of the cycle path in Pollok Park.

‘Ohhh, why does the path have to go up here? ….[in reply to himself] I suppose because they made the path after they made the planet’.

You can’t fault the logic, even though he missed a few steps in between! It made me think that we do have the planet and we have wildlife habitats, what we need to do is build the cycle paths to get there – and the bus links. We need more low-carbon ways to get to nature wherever it is – not everyone has use of a car and what if we want to reduce our carbon footprint and choose to leave the car at home. I hope I have shown you, this week, a few possibilities for doing this within the Central Belt of Scotland. But what about further afield? In future weeks (probably in August) I’ll be trying to get to RSPB nature reserves in other parts of Scotland without a car. I’m making plans for this but some places are difficult to go low-carbon. Dumfries and Galloway, for example, has pretty limited bus services.On a cold grey day in January this year, 350 people, many with bikes, descended on the Scottish Government in Edinburgh to call for more money in the budget for cycling and active travel Stop Climate Chaos Scotland organised this because the Government’s draft Budget showed a one-third cut in funding for active travel but an alarming rise in spending on roads. The action that day did win an extra £13million over 3 years for sustainable and active travel….but ironically an additional £72million for road building in the final Budget!

Cycling policy – stuck in the mud?  – Eleanor Bentall (

We need a much greater share of the transport budget going to pay for pedestrian and cycle paths and to support public transport. And we need routes to go to wonderful places in the countryside so that we can easily get out and enjoy nature. You never know, a small investment might even cut congestion, cut our CO2 emissions, improve the nation’s health and make us feel good.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get out to a reserve today. I went to a meeting about the RSPB’s Inner Forth Futurescape project (where I visited on Tuesday). I hope to get to the Inner Clyde reserve at a later date.

The nuthatch moves north — June 28, 2012

The nuthatch moves north

Watching from the Aird Meadow hide

Today is the first day of the school holidays so I decided to take my 6 year old son with me on my visit to RSPB Lochwinnoch in Renfrewshire. After all, this blog is all about showing that you can enjoy nature and get there without the car – even with the family. We hooked his tag-along to the back of my bike for the ride home.

The journey there by train from Glasgow Central couldn’t be easier because Lochwinnoch station is almost opposite the reserve. The hard part was getting our long vehicle over the footbridge. It was a dreich morning but we got a warm welcome and a nature spotting activity for kids which we did as we wandered the path alongside Aird Meadow to the hide. The wildlife seemed to be hiding from the weather, but we did see a sedge warbler in the reeds. An otter had been spotted earlier in the day but no luck for us.

Nuthatch                                                               John Bridges (


No sign of nuthatch either. The first unofficial sighting of a nuthatch in Renfrewshire was in 2001 and now this small bird, which walks head first down the trunks of trees hunting for insects, is regularly breeding in the Clyde area. It has moved steadily north from England and this year one was recorded on the reserve on May 10th. My wife saw one this year in Linn Park, in Glasgow’s Southside and this year they have been breeding in Inverclyde. Changes in the range of species is likely under climate change scenarios – the suitable climate for many species is likely to move north and birds will change their range accordingly. This is OK where birds like nuthatch have woodland to move to but other species may not be so lucky. We need to make sure there is sufficient habitat in the right place to keep up with the changes.

Our cycle back from Lochwinnoch was along National Cycle Route 7. It’s amazing and so rewarding because it follows an old railway line north all the way to Paisley so it’s pretty flat and therefore constantly fast – always helpful, especially when pulling a tag-along. It’s also a great surface – well done to Sustrans. After Paisley there are some on-road sections plus some along the White Cart before the route enters Pollok Park. We did approx 18 miles [must check and update] and much quicker than expected.

We made it
WARNING: Steep hill; changing rainfall. —

WARNING: Steep hill; changing rainfall.

The nice people at Loch Leven reserve did warn me about the steep hill on National Cycle Network Route 1 near Cleish; but I took the chance and now my legs may regret it. I’m not too proud to admit that I had to get off and push at the last steep section.

My bike at RSPB Loch Leven

I took the train from Edinburgh to Lochgelly and cycled the 5 miles to RSPB Loch Leven – formerly known as RSPB Vane Farm. On the way back I wanted to take in National Cycle Route 1 so had to head west out of the reserve, over the M90 and then pick up Route 1 (heading over said steep hill) and down to the station in Dunfermline. In hindsight I would have done my route the other way round. Check out the Sustrans network (to make a proper plan!) at,678000 .

A less strenuous way to get to the reserve without a car is to go by bus which has a limited service to the reserve on a Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday from Kinross and elsewhere. The scenic route is to walk or cycle clockwise the 8 miles around the edge of the loch along the Loch Leven Heritage Trail from Kinross.

RSPB Loch Leven reserve features a variety of habitats, It overlooks the open water of the loch, has a wooded hillside, meadows, a raised bog and wetlands. I spoke to Vicky Turnbull, the Warden, who explained to me the work they have done on the reserve in the past year to better control water levels on the wetland, especially for lapwing. Being on sandy soil, the wetland drains quickly but can also flood easily. Managing the water levels seems to be a stressful business because the RSPB does not have control of the water level in the Loch or when and how much it rains. With climate change projections showing less summer rainfall in future it is essential to try to store winter rainfall on the reserve for keeping the wetlands wet through the year. Building resilience to changing rainfall patterns is essential if the wetland habitat is to continue to support the numbers of lapwing that I saw today, and hopefully more. We must do all we can to halt further climate change but we also have a responsibility to help wildlife adapt to the impacts that the climate will have on them and their habitats.

The long-term trend in the east of Scotland may be for less summer rain but I did get a soaking today – that is the difference between climate and weather.

Using nature to reduce flood risk — June 26, 2012

Using nature to reduce flood risk

RSPB Skinflats reserve with Longannet Power Station in the distance

At last, I’m on the bike. OK I only missed one day yesterday without the bike but I was keen to get cycling today. Off on the train to Larbert and then a flat run of 6 miles to the Firth of Forth at Skinflats. RSPB Skinflats reserve isn’t advertised to visitors or signposted – the part I visited is used as a demonstration site.

Skinflats reserve is mainly mud. The mudflats between Grangemouth and the Kincardine bridge are designated for nature and now protected. Good job too as when you visit you notice the amount of development along the Forth. Grangemouth oil refinery, Longannet powerstation, both Forth bridges and both bridges at Kincardine are visible from the reserve. It is an island of nature along the Forth. And that is partly the problem.

Two hundred years ago, or more, the banks of the Forth would have looked a lot different. Saltmarsh and intertidal habitats would have dominated. Since then land has been drained and reclaimed for agriculture and built on, including all the industy and communities along the Forth, and have used sea defences for protection from the tide and storms.

Climate change is causing sea levels to rise and is squeezing and eroding the remaining saltmarsh habitat between the tidal river and the sea walls. The earth bank sea defenses are doing their job but actually benefit from the protection of saltmarsh which dissipates the power of the waves. Without the habitat, sea defences need more regular costly maintenance or could be breached more easily leading to a potentially disasterous flooding. The risks only get more extreme as we continue to produce greenhouse gases and worsen climate change. You can’t keep building ever higher sea defences in the same place.

In 2002 the RSPB bought a field to extend the reserve and to revert it back to saltmarsh habitat. The sea defences were ‘retreated’ inland around the field and work is ongoing to allow the tide to flood the land in a controlled way. Within one year of allowing the saltwater to deluge the land, saltmarsh plants were colonising and birds such as lapwing and redshank were nesting. It is an example of using nature to help us to adapt to the impacts of climate change – to build our resilience in the face of greater flood risk. We will need much more of this type of coastal realignment in the future if we are to protect communities and industry along the Forth from the impacts of sea level rise and storm events. Till then RSPB Skinflats reserve is a much needed island of nature amongst the development along the Forth.

Bird of the day was a short-eared owl that I flushed out of long grass – It flew a short distance and hid itself again in the saltmarsh.

A precarious housing situation — June 25, 2012

A precarious housing situation

The south bank of the Clyde with sand martin nests

It’s been a long time since I saw sand martins. I had to do a double-take but realised that these fast flyers were going in and out of the bank of the river, and swooping around, searching for insects. The steep riverbank of the Clyde was fresh earth, a clean location to excavate a nest hole.

I visited RSPB Baron Haugh today, my first day of Green Travel to Green Places. And what a day to start, with beautiful sunny skies. Baron’s Haugh hugs the north bank of the Clyde south of Motherwell and is adjacent to North Lanarkshire Council’s Dalzell Estate. To get there I took a train from Glasgow Central (lower level) to Airbles on the line to Lanark and then walked 15 minutes along the outskirts of Motherwell to the reserve – no car allowed for me. A very easy journey.

I wandered down to the Clyde walkway path and that’s where I encountered the sand martins and the swollen and fast running Clyde.  Later on, I saw sections where the river had recently flown over the path and other sections of the walkway which had been washed out by the currents. Heavy rain upstream is becoming a potential problem for managing the Haugh even though it is protected from the river by a bund. Stephen Owen, Reserve Manager at Baron’s Haugh, explained to me that floods and high water levels have been recorded much more frequently on the Clyde in recent years. The wetland is often flooded at winter, but even now levels are up and nests have been lost. This includes the sand martins nests which were lower on the bank of the river.

The projections of climate change show that we are likely to experience a greater number of extreme events in the future which might make the housing situation of sand martins and other birds at Baron’s Haugh even more precarious.

The reserve also has woodlands and meadows as well as the wetland and open-water. I saw treecreeper, sedge warbler, little grebe and goldfinches, and plenty of others.

Week 1 – nature in Scotland’s Central Belt — June 22, 2012

Week 1 – nature in Scotland’s Central Belt

RSPB Lochwinnoch nature reserve – Andy Hay (

My first visit is on Monday, can’t wait. Here is a list of the RSPB reserves I will visit next week. Look out for my tweets @JimDensham

Monday – Baron’s Haugh near Motherwell

Tuesday – Skinflats and the Inner Forth

Wednesday – Loch Leven nr Kinross

 Thursday – Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire

Friday – Inner Clyde, downstream from Glasgow nr Dumbarton

Day trips without the car — June 21, 2012

Day trips without the car

I live in the Southside of Glasgow with my family. We love getting out into the countryside at the weekend so when the kids are in bed on a Friday night we have a familiar debate that goes something like this;

Where shall we go this weekend?

Let’s go to [insert location here].

Can we get there by train?

Yes, but it will take too long [or] No, we will have to go by car.

We love to think we are not reliant on our car but when it comes to visiting the countryside its difficult not to be. Our destination usually rules how we travel rather than the other way around, although we are getting more familiar with great places to go to by train. We are lucky because we can afford to run a car even though we mainly use it only at weekends. The 2001 Census showed that 45% of Glasgow households do not own a car so public transport and active travel is the only way from them to access the countryside. For us, the car is a semi-luxury, helping us to enjoy our relaxation time.

On the sunniest day of the year so far we decided to take our bikes by train to Largs and take the ferry to then cycle round Cumbrae. It was a fantastic day, and so it was no surprise that half of Glasgow were also at Central station headed for the west coast beaches. That trip took more planning than if we had jumped in the car but even with the bikes and all the people on the train, going by car, with the traffic jams and parking hassles, would have been worse. Breaking the habit of grabbing the car keys and making a different plan can be the hardest part. It’s so easy to say – lets go to RSPB Lochwinnoch for the day – and automatically jump in the car, but leaving the car at home can be rewarding too in so many ways.

I’m off on the first week of visits to RSPB nature reserves next week. They will all be done as a daytrip from Glasgow to show that there are places you can go for a day out without taking the car.

Training – Bike to Work Week — June 20, 2012

Training – Bike to Work Week

 This week is Bike to Work Week and RSPB always has a wee competition to see who can cycle in to work from the furthest place. My colleague Rory Crawford and I both live in Glasgow but are Edinburgh based so we decided to give it a go – well half of it. We jumped on the train at Glasgow Queen Street with our bikes and disembarked at Falkirk High heading straight for the nearby Union Canal and the towpath east to Edinburgh. You can easily join the canal at Falkirk, Polmont or Linlithgow. 

It’s a lovely cycle in the morning, chiffchaff and chaffinch singing and insects dashing about inches above the water surface. We saw stonechat, bullfinch, heron and a family of swans, and a dipper by the river below the Avon Aqueduct nr Linlithgow. The canal loops around Broxburn before heading east again to Edinburgh so here we hopped off to head more directly, past the airport to Edinburgh Park, along the cycle paths.

It took just over 2 hours so not a bad way to get me in training for anything over the usual 10 mins ride in Glasgow.

Jim and Rory – ready for work
Slow travel vs low-carbon travel —

Slow travel vs low-carbon travel

 I googled slow travel. Most people who slow travel try getting from A to B with a lower carbon footprint to normal. Some, like slow food lovers, focus on taking time to just enjoy the experience, but this could be pootling along in a huge campervan rather than on a bike. I aim to cut my carbon footprint so my journeys to RSPB reserves on my sabbatical will only be by train, bus, boat or bike….but primarily bike. At the moment I’m a short-commute cyclist, rather than doing it to keep fit, so I’m aiming to take the bike on the train where possible and ride from there. I don’t have all the kit, like some of my friends who are also hitting the big 40, I’m more like the rider on the right than the left (see pic) – but I’ll give it a go.

I’m a bit more elderly lady than Mark Cavendish

There is also a perception that you can’t get to RSPB reserves unless you have a car. It’s true that many are in the middle of nowhere but surprisingly there are plenty you can get to even if you leave the car at home, or don’t have one. I can tell you that working out how to get to Loch of Kinnordy by public transport is a bit of a trial but I hope I can inspire you to enjoy nature and reduce your carbon footprint at the same time.

Not much of a birdwatcher — June 18, 2012

Not much of a birdwatcher

Quite a lot of RSPB staff do bird surveys for their sabbatical. A month counting birds sounds like my idea of sabbatic-hell. On the scale of birdwatching – I’m a very occasional birdwatcher (when I remember my binoculars), certainly not a birder and I’m with the majority on the opinion of twitchers! So I put off, for ages, deciding how to spend my month, and then it came to me in the middle of the night… I’m not joking. I had been chatting to a colleague about ‘slow travel’ and I had been working on how we can do better at using real examples of the impacts of climate change on birds and wildlife – especially those we are already seeing on our reserves. So my middle of the night epiphany fused those elements:

  1. Go to RSPB reserves to collect the examples of climate impacts and what we are doing to help wildlife adapt to a future climate.
  2. Travel by low-carbon means only – some call this slow travel.

So there you have it Green Travel to Green Places. Some say a sabbatical should be something completely different to ones work. Something which recharges the batteries, or provides new skills and perspectives. As I work every day on climate change policy it’s not wholly different but getting there low carbon should be fun.