Green travel to green places

In search of climate and wildlife stories…by bike

Otterly hopeful in the Cree Valley — September 3, 2012

Otterly hopeful in the Cree Valley

Otter (not at Wood of Cree)
Credit: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

Will I ever get to see an otter? It’s near the top of my list of wildlife I want to see and I keep hoping. Problem is being in the right place at the right time – I’m only ever in the right place at the wrong time. I saw otter footprints on Tiree and last week I was at the otter viewing platform at the RSPB’s Wood of Cree reserve in Galloway – as the signs say, it’s a good place to see them. The information sign also said that otter populations are on the rise thanks to new laws and efforts which are cleaning up our rivers and seas. Good news. That is the first step in helping wildlife adapt to the impacts of climate change – reduce the pressure on them from things not linked to the climate, e.g. pollution or habitat loss. If we do that, populations can increase, but they also need quality habitat in the right place.

Even though I didn’t see an otter, the Wood of Cree is a wonderful place to visit and part of the bigger Cree Valley Community Woodland Project. It’s easy to see why otters thrive there. I cycled down through the mix of river, wetland, woodland and farmland habitats on the Sustrans National Cycle Route 7 – a beautiful journey through what is classed as Western Atlantic Oak Woodland. The RSPB bought land to extend the Wood of Cree in 2005 and plant more trees but you might think that otters don’t live up trees so where is the link?

Conservation at the scale of whole river valleys or whole mountain ranges is also important for helping wildlife to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the future. This landscape-scale conservation isn’t about increasing the size of just one habitat, it’s about; making space for natural processes, improving increasing the size of all habitats over a wider area and joining up isolated habitats. This landscape-scale approach is an important tool in preparing wildlife for a changing climate. It can increase wildlife populations and make them robust and resilient, and it provides space for them to spread out as temperatures shift.

By working together, like we are in the Cree Valley, we can create bigger and better habitats which are fit for the future and able to prepare individual species, like otters, for life in a changing climate.

Wood of Cree in the spring
Photo credit: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
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 (rspb-images.com)

 

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 http://www.sustrans.org.uk/map#292000,678000 .

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.