Winds of Change

Hi folks! Well, I know it’s not quite the ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ yet, but there’s definitely a chill in the air, early in the mornings and in the evenings, here at the Muir of Dinnet. It’s still just about summer though and at the time of writing this, I can confirm that it’s been mostly a very warm and pleasant day. But there’s just that instinctive sense that it’s all about to change very soon. A change to that wonderful time of crunching leaves, vistas of orange, gold and yellow speckled hillsides, where the Birch, Rowan and Aspen start to shut down for the winter.

Fieldfare gorging itself on Holly berries.

There’s a sense of anticipation for those first sounds of autumn too: the calls from thousands of Pink Footed Geese, flying en masse in their triangular skein formations overhead, or the mournful honks of the Whooper Swans, reassuring each other that they’ve survived yet another perilous journey. Perhaps we’ll soon be hearing the echoes of roaring Red Deer stags, bellowing down the mountains? Or maybe we’ll catch that rapid and slightly manic chattering of Redwings and Fieldfares, escaping the grip of an arctic winter, setting in across the North Sea in Scandinavia and Russia. A reminder that a much colder and harsher world is never very far away. All to come soon, but not quite yet.

A dominant Red Deer stag and his hareem of hinds.

The heather moorland surrounding the reserve and our own Bearberry heath, is still in full bloom at the moment. From any angle the view is the classic picture post card of the Scottish Highlands, dressed in characteristic purple and pink. It’s a stunning sight, and we often take it for granted, but it’s actually pretty unique, when you consider three-quarters of the world’s heather moorland is in the UK, and the majority of that, is up here in the Highlands. In fact, our equally unique management of heather, for the maximisation of the Red Grouse harvest, means that this rather homogenous and yet beautiful habitat, covers around 50 per cent of Scotland’s uplands.

The Muir of Dinnet heather moorland in its full late summer glory.

It’s a cultural landscape, so to speak, an artificial tundra thousands of miles south and hundreds of meters below, the naturally occurring treeline. Our Bearberry heath is of global conservation importance, because it is naturally occurring at, or below, 200 metres in elevation. This extremely specific habitat in conjunction with the open Birch woodland and light native forest regeneration (of specifically younger trees) makes it the perfect home for the Kentish Glory Moth, a very rare moth to the UK. That’s why we have to manage the heath, rotationally burning the heather every year, to maintain this precious and fragile habitat.

Young Birch and Pine interspersed with heather is an important habitat for the Kentish Glory Moth.

Kentish Glory shows quite considerable sexual dimorphism between males and females. Males tend to be smaller and darker generally than the females, with characteristically orange-brown hindwings, whereas the females are brownish white. Males also have a rather cute feathery antennae and are stronger fliers. Their activity usually peaks in sunshine and overcast conditions around midday. Females fly at dusk and nest on Birch twigs (pictured below). Their caterpillars emerge from mid-May to mid-August and cocoon themselves as pupae during the winter, safe on the ground. This is considered to be a prime habitat for this delicate little moth and we feel very fortunate to have it choose this place as home.

Kentish Glory Moth on a Birch twig (courtesy of Creative Commons).

In more hands-on, practical reserve news, Kirstin and I had the pleasure of working alongside the Cairngorm National Park Rangers yesterday, to help safeguard our Aspen suckers (or saplings). We did this by inserting over 150 tree guards over the suckers and also built a small enclosure to protect a bigger group of small trees. Aspen suckers are the clone shoots which grow from the adult Aspen trees. With time, they eventually grow into mature Aspen trees and this, in effect, expands the Aspen stand. An Aspen stand is often composed of genetically identical Aspen trees, which are all connected to the same root system. Therefore, an Aspen stand is technically the largest organism on earth, even bigger and heavier than a Blue Whale! Pretty cool, I know! Unfortunately, their leaves and shoots are extremely palatable to Red Deer (but then, what isn’t?).

A mature Aspen tree on the reserve (courtesy of Kirstin Mair).

Unsurprisingly, the relatively recent explosion of the Scottish Red Deer population, combined with historic deforestation over millennia, has caused this fascinating woodland ecosystem to perish, and it’s now restricted to very specific sites across the highlands; often in extremely inaccessible places where deer can’t reach the tree saplings. Knowing this about Aspen, makes the task of carrying out this work extra rewarding and fulfilling, because every Aspen stand that is protected and expanded, contributes to re-establishing this incredible tree organism back to our native forests. We’re really grateful to Kirsty, Sam, Joe and Tom for helping us out with this important restorative work; actions that will continue to resonate long into the future.

That’s all for this week. I’m off to do my 4×4 off-road training next week and I can’t wait! Wish me luck! I’ll let you know how I get on. Take care everyone. Danny.

In my element!

About dannyfabianharvey

Danny works for NatureScot as an Assistant Reserve Officer, at the Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve, in the Eastern Cairngorms National Park. He graduated in 2019 with an MSc in Ecology and Conservation from the University of Aberdeen. This has provided him with the scientific rigor required when dealing with issues of Ecology and Conservation, coupled with a profound respect for wildlife and habitats. He directs his own short films, two of which were Highly Commended in the British Wildlife Photography Awards 2018. Currently, he is co-directing and filming a documentary feature called, 'The Bough Beaks', with independent production company, Mousehole Films, due to complete in the summer of 2023. Danny is regularly booked for his lively talks on Wildlife Filming, where he discusses the joys, challenges and techniques. Recently he has started working as a freelance bird surveyor, having conducted multiple farmland bird surveys for the James Hutton Institute for their Framework program. Previously, he has worked with the RSPB, Trees for Life and Aquila Ecology.
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