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)
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MAMILs on the road — September 1, 2012

MAMILs on the road

I’m waiting for a new all singing all dancing modem to arrive and get us back into 21st century braodband speeds. So this is only a short post.

Do you know the difference between a MAMIL and a mammal? One is a usually hairy warm blooded creature which produces milk for its young. The other is short for Middle Aged Man in Lycra. You’ve seen them, sometimes in packs, often on a Sunday morning, brightly coloured and in a hunched position straining at the pedals. It’s the thing to do to get over the mid-life crisis; buy a flashy Chris Boardman bike (other brands are available), a cycle computer, a skin-tight lycra outfit and off you go to get fit and out of the house. It’s better than buying a sports car and looking for younger women – I guess.

I’ve cycled more than 100 miles this week on my visits to RSPB’s Mersehead, Wood of Cree, and Crook of Baldoon reserves in Dumfries and Galloway. I enjoyed the cycling and being in the countryside, and feel a whole lot fitter than when I started this cycling sabbatical lark in June. I think I’m going to keep going with the cycling to keep the fitness and to get about. I should resolve to go for a weekly ride, but don’t expect me to become a fully fledged MAMIL just yet.

More blogs to come about Wood of Cree, Crook of Baldoon and climate impacts.

A day trip along the Solway Firth — August 28, 2012

A day trip along the Solway Firth

Fancy a day trip to the Solway Firth to see some birds? Why not go to the RSPB’s Mersehead reserve… but not at the end of August. I went today and didn’t see much, save for, what could have been, a female wheatear, being battered by the wind. I was well and truly battered by the wind as I wandered along the beach and on my cycle to the reserve. So spotting birds and cycling were both hard work. There were lovely views though, across the sand flats and the grassland and saltmarsh. Views were great along the ride too, especially across the Solway on the way back and a following wind.

The best times to visit are either in the spring when there are loads of bums on nests, especially waders or in winter. Both Mersehead and Kirkconnell Merse RSPB reserve on the River Nith, are important sites for barnacle geese from Svalbard which spend the winter there as well as good numbers of other swans, geese and ducks.

 I got there by train from Glasgow to Dumfries and then it’s a gently undulating ride along the A710 Solway coast road. The ride is about 17 miles each way to Mersehead but you could make a shorter ride to Kirkconnell Flow National Nature Reserve and Kirkconnell Merse, or just stop off there on route to Mersehead. Definitely a good day out no matter how far down the road you get.

Learning to slow down and enjoy nature — August 25, 2012

Learning to slow down and enjoy nature

Someone accused me of not being very low carbon because I was planing to get the train and ferry to Coll. I laughed. True, I could cycle all the way to the sea and then follow the example of some people from Coll who on the 8th August swam from the Ardnamurchan peninsula to Coll (I heard later that they did the swim in relays so no-one actually swam all the way). Finally I could walk to the RSPB reserve, so technically it is possible but it would be one hell of a mixed up crazy triathlon. It’s true that the ferry is not exactly low carbon. You would have to do the sums, but if you were on a half-full ferry in winter it might be better for your carbon footprint to fly in a full plane. But if you did fly you would miss the sight of porpoises, dolphins, basking sharks, gannets diving into the sea, and more. I prefer the slow route and with Calmac ferries investing in some electric powered ferries this year, all the better.

Both Coll and Tiree are amazing for watching wildlife but Coll is wilder, quieter and with less people and houses – more romantic perhaps. There is more moorland and even a few trees. Tiree seems busier, flatter and greener, with sandy beaches all around the island. Getting to the reserve on Coll was fine by bike. I stayed in Arinagour the village on the island close to where the ferry offloads. It’s about 10 miles from there to the reserve, a bit up and down but not too arduous. Anyway the views are worth it and being on a bike you feel in the countryside and closer to nature. I had my own bike but you can hire them or even stick your thumb out and hope for a kind passer by – quite likely on Coll.

Also on a bike you can pootle along and stop when and where you like along the single-track roads. I’ll admit I’m not very good at this slow cycling philosophy – I like the ride too much. But I’m learning to slow down. I was inspired by two people I met who took most of the day to cycle their hired bikes around Coll, they saw so much wildlife. A family I met on their bikes said they loved Tiree because they could spend the days, slowly cycling from beach to beach. So on Tiree I put my mind to a slow ride to where I was staying for the night and was rewarded with a view of a rare female hen harrier hunting over the heather. With so much nature all around why not take some time to just enjoy it.

Machair under threat — August 24, 2012

Machair under threat

On the ferry crossing from Coll to Tiree I saw basking sharks and a pod of dolphins – amazing. Basking sharks are the second largest fish in the ocean, second only to the whale shark. They are slow moving filter feeders, opening their huge mouths to take in gallons of water and filter out the nutritious tiny plankton. I saw them some way off so just the dark dorsal fin above the water – but it was my first ever sighting. John Bowler, my RSPB colleague on Tiree, said he counted 250 off the west cost of the island on one occasion this year and that it has been a good year for them because the sea has stayed relatively cool through the summer and this has been good for plankton.

John showed me ‘The Reef’, a large flat Machair plain to the east and south of the airport, almost bisecting the island, land that he looks after and manages. It’s a sensitive spot so not a reserve that the RSPB advertises. In April and May there are large numbers of lapwing nesting and in the winter rain flood the lowest point before draining to the sea. Whooper swans, geese and other water birds use this area. Whooper swans migrate to Tiree from Greenland and stay for the winter but in the past 10-15 years their arrival date has got later and later. They used to arrive in September or October but nowadays they delay until November because Greenland is getting warmer.

Between The Reef and the sea is a stretch of sand dunes. John showed me that these are eroding and I could easily see the steep seaward edge in many places. This might be due to the storms which seem to come in a more southerly direction these days. This winter was the wettest ever winter and very windy, often force 8, 9 and 10. The storms have battered the beachhead in places on the island and roads have to be repaired after each. At The Reef the sand isn’t blowing inland to create new dunes but rather washing away at a rate of approximately half a metre per year and in some places the dunes are now very low and narrow. If the sea did wash through the dunes it is hard to say how long any inundation might last or how nature would respond and adapt. Some Machair would be lost as the saltwater wouldn’t be favourable to it, instead saltmarsh might take hold permanently.

Machair is under threat throughout the Hebrides because of climate change causing sea level rise and extreme weather. Machair is unique, delicate and vulnerable, and we can’t create lots more in other places in Scotland. All we can do is manage the Machair that we have so that it is in the best condition possible for the wildlife that depends on it and for us to enjoy. The best thing to avoistop the erosion of Machair is to cut our carbon emissions and put a halt to climate change as soon as we can.

Watching for signs of climate change on Coll — August 22, 2012

Watching for signs of climate change on Coll

Imagine that Coll is shaped like a fish (stay with me on this), a fish swimming north east. The RSPB reserve is at the end of the body and the thin part before the tail starts. Got the picture? The land owned by the RSPB includes a variety of habitats; moorland, farmed fields, wet grassland, sand dunes and Machair. Some of it is managed by the RSPB staff and some is under tenancy agreements with farmers.

Today was my first ever experience of Machair, a habitat unique to Scotland and Ireland. In Scotland you find it on the Uists, Islay, Colonsay, Tiree and Coll, but as I found out it is different on each island, is farmed in different ways and the habitat has never been properly defined. Its character comes from the influence of shell sand which builds up into huge dunes and also gets blown onto other land making the unique flower-rich grassland which is Machair. In some places, like the Uists, the low lying Machair is at risk from erosion because of sea-level rise but seemingly not yet on Coll. This year, RSPB staff started taking photos of the Machair and dunes from fixed points and will retake photos from exacly the smae point in a few years time to see if the Machair and dunes are eroding.

The changing climate may be having other impacts, or it might just be the weather. April was the driest April ever experienced on Coll and thanks to the jet stream which temporarily sank southwards this year they have had a fantastic summer – sorry if you are reading this in England. The Machair plain 2 years ago had no flowers because the light sandy soils were too dry – it was nearly too dry again this year. Conversely, in the past 3-4 years increased rainfall in winter has meant that the land stays wet and means that the reserve staff can’t use machinery on it in March like they used to. Wetter winters, drier summers and unpredictable extremes of weather are all likely to be the way the climate changes in Scotland.

On Coll it’s impossible to say if climate change is having an impact now on the natural environment because there are no clear signs and no patterns emerging, but we are watching and waiting.

Sorry no pictures – I forgot to bring the lead which links the camera to the computer. Doh! I’ll post some on the blog at the weekend.

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 http://www.stopclimatechaos.org/on-yer-bike. 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 (rspb-images.com)

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 (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.

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 (rspb-images.com)

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 http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/b/baronshaugh/index.aspx

Tuesday – Skinflats and the Inner Forth http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/s/skinflats/index.aspx

Wednesday – Loch Leven nr Kinross http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/l/lochleven/index.aspx

 Thursday – Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire  http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/l/lochwinnoch/index.aspx

Friday – Inner Clyde, downstream from Glasgow nr Dumbarton http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/i/innerclyde/index.aspx