Wednesday 14 December 2011

Wednesday 14 December

Clearing trees near Spoutwells, Dunkeld
The gales of last week certainly left their mark. We have just about recovered from the 3 day power cut, but there are a lot of trees down. Most of the paths at the Blair Atholl end of the estate have been cleared, but do let us know if you come across any trees down on the trails here. The Dunkeld area was very badly hit, and it will take some time to get all the trees cleared from the tracks and paths. In some places you can't actually see where the path is supposed to be. The main path up to Loch Ordie has been cleared, and the path towards Rotmell from Polney Loch is also now clear. The paths in the Craig y Barns area, including the Polney to Cally Car Park path, have been particularly badly affected, and are not passable in places at the moment. We are working our chainsaws hard, but some routes may not be clear until into the New Year.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Tuesday 22 November

We have had the pleasure of a rare dry day today, giving us a chance to see what's out and about instead of hiding inside hoods and waterproofs!
Beinn Dearg in the November sunshine

Out on the hills it looks like winter. I saw some viviparous fescue (Festuca vivipara) grass which is well adapted to poor weather and short seasons. Viviparous means giving birth to live young, not something you would usually associate with grass. What the grass actually does is to produce lots of little grass plants instead of seeds. These are ready to grow as soon as they fall off and bed into the ground. Genetically they are the same as the parent plant, but on the hills soemtimes the season is too short or inclement to have time for all the pollination and seed production. Sheeps fescue and red fescue grasses also grow on the hills, but they produce seeds normally.
Viviparous fescue - there are lots of little 'grasslets' at the end of each stem.

Roe deer are becoming a common sight again in the woods around the Castle. Now that most of the human and canine visitors have gone home, the woods are quiet, and the deer usually spend the winter here before disappearing again in the spring

Saturday 5 November 2011

Saturday 5th November

The winter weather is starting to kick in and the mornings are becoming frosty. There is a fog settled over the River Gary and Tummel every morning which looks quite nice and strange when the rest of the landscape is really clear. It is becoming that time of year where you will have to spend some extra time in the morning defrosting your car and allowing more time to travel to take account of the ice on the roads.

Today we will be doing one of our monthly nature club events which will be all about pine martens and what better way to start the day than spotting a pine marten whilst out walking the dog. The ranger was just in the right place at the right time to spot the pine marten and it was great to see. Pine martens are about the size of a small cat and live mainly in wooded areas. They are the only mustelid to have semi retractable claws allowing them to climb trees and live in hallowed out trees, squirrel dreys and can even be found living in bird nests. Pine martens tend to be active at night and at dusk so are seldom seen during the day. They are opportunistic feeders and will eat a wide variety of food including small mammals, squirrels, birds and bird eggs, fish, insects, frogs and even carrion. A grey heron and a roe deer was also spotted whilst out for a walk so it was a good morning for wildlife spotting.

Pine marten at the Highland Wildlife park
Whilst in the visitor centre yesterday, which is now closed to the public for the winter, I came across something surprising. A wren was circling around the visitor centre trying to find a way to get back outside. It must have flown in the day before without anyone noticing then could not find a way back outside. After a bit of perseverance I managed to get the little bird back outside but it was understandably panicked by the ordeal and landed in the grass. I placed in a shaded tree out of reach of predators and passing dogs so it would have peace to calm down before it was able to fly properly again and start hunting for food. You never know what you are going to come across when you are out and about so keep your eyes and ears open, you could come across something really interesting. 
Wren from the ranger information centre
As it is Guy Fawkes night I thought I would take this opportunity to remind you to check your bonfires before you light them as hedgehogs or other wildlife may be using them as a place to start hibernating. Please also be aware of where you place your bonfire i.e. not too close to roosting sights or bird boxes as boxes will still be used for shelter during the winter. Please be safe, sensible and enjoy bonfire night.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Wednesday 26 October

Lost dog found!

Daz appeared today after being lost in the hills since Friday 21st. He was last seen on Carn a Chalamain, and his owners and frineds have been looking for him ever since, but with no sign until today. He was first spotted near Marble Lodge and then sightings were made down Glen Tilt to the village. He was finally picked up at Blair Castle Caravan Park. His owners were most relieved to get him back, a little thinner and tired, but otherwise ok.

Many dogs get lost in the hills in this area by chasing mountain hares. These hares will keep running for miles, they don't have burrows to disappear into. Usually the dog gives up after some time, but by then they are disorientated and a long way from their owners. So keep your dog under close control or on a lead, especially if it likes to chase. Dogs rarely catch hares, but particularly in the winter, hares can suffer from exhaustion after a chase.

Sunday 23 October 2011

Sunday 23 October

Autumn is definitely moving along now. The larch trees here have turned golden, and the paths through the woods are now lined with a soft yellow needle carpet. It's very pretty except when you are cycling and the needles end up coating your chain, gears and brakes! Larch is the only deciduous conifer we have, losing its needles every autumn and growing new ones in the spring. This makes it a lovely tree for the landscape as you get new bright green needles in spring as well as the autumn golds.

Golden tufted needles of larch.

The history of the larch tree in Britain is intertwined with the Dukes of Atholl. The Second Duke introduced European larch to his estates, for landscaping and beauty. The Fourth Duke realised the larch's potential for boat building, as it is very resistant to rot. He had more than 15 million larch trees planted in his woods around Dunkeld. During the Seventh Duke's time just over 100 years ago, the Hybrid larch was born on Atholl Estates near what is now the Hilton Hotel. This is a hybrid between the European Larch and the Japanese larch and is disease resistant and grows straight. It is the larch that is used in forestry still today.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Wednesday 19th October

We recently had our Roaring Stags walk which was a great success. We saw loads of red deer and heard the stags roaring at each other and trying to hold their own harem. Unfortunately the wind was coming from behind us so the deer were able to hear and see us coming at a distance but we still got close enough to get a good look at them. If you are out in the hills or woods today take time to stop and listen, you may be lucky enough to hear the male deer roaring during the rut.   
Re deer ahead roaring
What better place to be looking at deer

View along Glen Tilt


Tuesday 18 October 2011

Tuesday 18 October

Proper snow.
We had a dusting of snow a couple of weeks ago, but this morning Beinn a Ghlo is white from top to bottom - well we can only see the bottom, the rest is in cloud, possibly still snowing up there.
Hard to see the snow when there's so much cloud!
Snow on Ben Vrackie which wasn't in cloud!

Autumn in Logierait Woods. Looks a different place completely to the snowy mountains.

It's still very autumnal in the woods with golden leaves and lots of fungi, but winter has definitely come to the hills.

Monday 10 October 2011

Monday 10th October

The rain over the last few days has made it great for seeing rainbows. There has been one out most days now which is always pretty to look at. Nobody ever sees the same rainbow; the rainbow you see is unique to you because it all depends on where you are standing how the light is refracted through the rain drops. It just makes them a bit more special and intriguing to look at.

Whilst out on a land rover tour we were very lucky enough to see some stags barking at each other. I say see because we couldn’t hear them because of the noise of the river. There were several lone stags barking and others trying to hold a group of females called a harem. At one point another stag came over to challenge a harem holder and they had a roaring competition. He obviously lost because the next moment he was gone and no battle ensued. This is a great time of year for hearing them and seeing them, as long as you don’t try and get too close as they can be dangerous during the rutting season.

We also saw several peregrines perched on the line or flying around and spotted some red squirrels up at Gilberst bridge and forest lodge. The red squirrels can be found right up into the glens even though there is not much woodland cover further up.

The ‘yew berries’ are out now which will be making a good feast for birds and badgers. It is not actually a berry per say but is a seed covered by a sweet, mucilaginous appendage called an aril. The seed itself is full of toxic alkaloids which make it very poisonous but birds and badgers are able to eat it because the seed passes through their body intact. They can then disperse the seeds in their faeces and allow the yew tree to establish elsewhere.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Wednesday 5th October

We were recently at the highland wildlife park with the group of children from nature club. Although it rained all day they all still had a great time looking and learning about all the different animals and then playing in the park after they spent all their pennies in the shop. The animals were quite active despite the weather and we had a close up look at the polar bear whilst it was being fed. The tigers and wolves were walking about and came right up the edge of the fence so we were able to admire these beautiful creatures at close range. The pine marten was also pacing about its enclosure, the wildcats were running about and the capercaillie was perched in a tree examining its surroundings. It was really nice to get up close and personal with some of Scotland’s native species.

Watching the polar bear feed

Looking at the tigers

Thursday 29 September 2011

Thursday 29 September

We are in the process of replacing all the waymarkers on our waymarked trails. Many of the posts are originals from when the trails were set up in 1996, so have done well to last 15 years. Today pupils from Pitlochry High School Rural Skills class gave us a hand on the Red Squirrel Trail. They realised it can be quite hard work digging a hole!

Thursday 22 September 2011

Thursday 22 September

Autumn colours in Glen Tilt

The equinox has been, nights are now longer than days, and autumn has definitely arrived in Blair Atholl. Although many people might suggest that we haven't had a summer anyway, the trees have now started to turn, leaves are falling, and the nights are definitely getting chilly. Give it a couple more weeks and the autumn colours should be looking really spectacular.

The squirrels definitely think it's autumn too, collecting and stashing food for the winter. Although they don't hibernate, they spend a lot more time in their dreys in the winter and don't go out at all on bad weather days. They stash food now so that in the middle of winter it's easy and quick to gather it and then they can quickly get back to the warmth of the drey.

Off to get the next nut
Stashing nuts amongst the vegetation
Sitting in the wildlife hide this morning, I watched a busy squirrel at work. It collected a nut, bit the top off - perhaps to give it a scent for finding it later, and then buried it amongst the vegetation. This went on for about 20 minutes before the squirrel decided maybe it could have a reward and ate one of the nuts. Meanwhile the coal tits were busy taking sunflower seeds that had been spilled by the squirrel.

Friday 16 September 2011

Friday 16 September

Busy squirrels.

Our resident red squirrels always love the peanut/ hazelnut / sunflower seed mix we put in our squirrel feeders out in the woods. However, they are emptying them slightly less quickly than usual just now, as the beech trees are providing an alternative feast. Standing under some of the big mature trees it is very difficult to see the squirrels because there are so many beech leaves, but you can hear the pop of the nuts being opened by the squirrel and then the rustles and plops as the husks are tossed away. Beech trees only have good 'mast ' years every few years, but when they do it's a great time for the squirrels to feed up.

Young squirrel enjoying one of our feeders.

Beech nut shells discarded by squirrels.
 The only downside is that it benefits the grey squirrels a lot too, and makes them more likely to spread out into this area. In fact one was recently spotted by a resident at Fenderbridge. If you see a grey squirrel in the Blair Atholl / Calvine / Struan area then please let us know as soon as possible.

Thursday 8 September 2011

Thursday 8th September

We have recently made improvements to one of our access points on the Glen Banvie trail. Where there used to be a boardwalk and steps over the deer fence (in the middle on the trail) we have now installed a gate to make access much easier, especially with bikes. On the way back from removing the boardwalk we spotted a black grouse standing on the moorland relaxing in the sun. It was a nice sight watching it in the middle of purple heather. 
New gate on the right
The Scottish thistles have begun to set seed now on the path to Loch Ordie with only a few flowering plants still about which are still a good source of food for insects, including this peacock butterfly. The thistle was taken on as the Scottish emblem during the reign of Alexander III because, as the legend goes, King Hakton of Norway ordered his army of men to invade Scotland, landing in Coast of Largs. They intended on taking the Scots by surprise by removing their shoes so they didn’t make a sound and creeping up on them during the night. Unfortunately one of the men stood on a thistle, yelped out and alerted the Scottish helmsmen of the invasion which led to the Scots winning the battle.
Peacock butterfly on a Scottish thistle
We have found yet another mink footprint but this time at Cally Loch so we are doing the best we can to try and trap it in an effort to protect and save our native water voles and stop the spread of American mink.

We recently had our advanced fungi day and saw over thirty species of fungi on a very small section of the red squirrel trail. There were loads of orange birch boletes and russulas but we also found a fly agaric and honey fungus, also called bootlace fungus. Honey fungus is a gardeners and foresters nightmare. There are seven different species in the UK and they are all parasitic, killing trees quickly by attacking tree roots and decaying dead wood. You may see honey coloured mushrooms on the tree or at its base for short periods in the year but it can also be distinguished by black coloured ‘bootlaces’ which are found growing under the bark. Not all fungi are bad though and only a small number are actually parasitic. Many have a symbiotic relationship with their plant counterparts helping both parties to grow and survive and some fungi are very important for recycling dead material. It is a great time of year to go out and have a look at them so see how many species you can find. You will be surprised at how many you can get in a small area.
Fly Agaric
Honey Fungus
Honey Fungus on birch

Sunday 28 August 2011

Sunday 28th August

Our resident red deer stag has finally shed all the velvet off his antlers now that it is getting close to the rutting season. The velvet supplies oxygen and nutrients to the antler to help it grow and since the antler is the fastest growing mammal bone it needs a lot of nutrients. Once it has reached its full size the velvet is no longer required so it dies and falls off leaving the dead bone. This also means that there are no longer nerves around the antlers so the stags can use them for displays and fights in order to get mates. We have had the same resident stag here at the castle for quite a few years now and he is getting quite old which you can tell from the size of his antlers. You cannot actually tell the age of a stag but counting the number of points on its antlers as size is also determined by the deer’s nutrition and health due to the vast nutrient requirements needed in growing antlers.
The rut itself will start at the end of September and will last until about November at which point the stags will be competing with each other for mates and guarding groups of females called a harem. During this time males will size each other up to assess dominance and will challenge a harem holder by roaring repeatedly for up to 20 minutes. If the stag is out roared he will back down but if there is no clear winner then it will lead onto a battle to determine the dominant male. When this happens the males will walk in parallel with each other until one lowers its head inviting the other to charge. They will fight and push each other until one submits and the winner will gain the breeding rights until challenged again. This can often lead to injuries and fatalities and in some cases their antlers can become locked together and then both will starve to death as they cannot feed or drink like this. Our resident male has a whole harem to himself so will not have to worry about competing to breed but in the hills you should be able to hear the stags roaring at each other in the following month but don’t get too close as they can be very dangerous during this time.

Thursday 25 August 2011

Thursday 25th August

The wet weather we have been having this summer has been very helpful for the salmon as their journey upstream to breed has been made a lot easier with the higher water levels.  The salmon can be seen jumping on the River Tilt as they make their way back to the stream in which they were born.  It is still uncertain how the salmon manage to navigate back to their natal site and many suggestions have been made including rivers having certain smells which the salmon use to find their way back or that they are able to detect the earth’s magnetic fields and use that as a guide.  After they breed the salmon will die leaving their offspring to fend for themselves and start the cycle again. 

Also on the river we have come across some mink tracks on one of our rafts.  These rafts contain a tunnel inside of which there is a basket filled with clay.  When a mink or other water dwelling animal comes to investigate the raft it will leave a footprint impression on the clay which can then be identified.  American mink are a real problem for our native water vole species as they predate heavily on them.  Water voles normally evade predators by diving under water and using submerged entrances to get into their burrows but these strategies do not work with are non-native mink as they are very good, fast swimmers.   This, as well as pollution and habitat change has resulted in a drastic decline in water voles which has led to them being classified as a protected species.  Mink resemble polecats and ferrets but can be distinguished due to them being one colour all over unlike the latter.  There is currently a large scale conservation effort to try and stop the spread of American mink to help save our water voles so if you spot one then please get in touch with either us or your local mink officer. 
American Mink
Water Vole
Tonight we have out batty kids events where we will be playing games to learn about bats and then going on a walk with the bat detectors to see what we can spot and hear.  This event starts at 7:30 and lasts until 9 pm meeting at the Ranger Information Centre and costs £2 per child. 

On Sunday the 28th August we also have a fungi course for beginners where you can come along and learn the basics about fungi and how to identify them. There really is a lot more to fungi than meets the eye so come along and learn about this very interesting kingdom. The following week (4th Sept) we have a more advanced fungi event where you can come out and improve your knowledge of fungi with our expert. These both start at 2 pm at Glen Tilt car park and cost £2 and £4 respectively per person.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Tuesday 16th August

The estate is becoming very active and busy with everyone getting ready for the horse trials. This is a four day event starting on Thursday 18th up to Sunday the 21st of August and takes place in the fields in front of the estate office, just below Blair Castle. There will be many different events taking place including dressage, stallion parades, show jumping and cross country. There will also be a Bruadar country fair arena which will host falconry, vintage tractors, gundogs and canine partners to name but a few. While you at the trials why not also visit some of the many stalls which will be selling anything from wine, food and delicacies to clothing, accessories and things for pets and horses. You don’t have to be a horse lover to go to the trials, there is something for everyone so come along and enjoy a day at the horse trails and country fair.
Despite the clouds and the threat of rain yesterday it was a great day for butterflies and dragonflies. There were large numbers of Scotch Argus butterflies and I was counting up to 25 in any 100m section of the transect, and that was only the ones I spotted. If you actually had time and stopped to look harder you would have been able to find far more as they were all sitting on Scottish thistles and in the heather round about. The heather flies were also out in large swarms and the dragonflies were having a great feast, catching them in mid-air then flying off with their prey. If you have the chance it can be really interesting just to take some time out and watch your local wildlife and it is a great way to relax.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Wednesday 10th August

The heavy rain during today and last night has mean that we have had to cancel our Gala night which was due to take place in Blair Atholl tonight.  We will hopefully be rescheduling for later on in the year so keep posted for information. 
Up on the Glen Banvie trail near Ruichlachrie a male merlin was spotted resting on a rock whilst out on a landrover tour.  The merlin is the smallest bird of prey which inhabits the UK.  They feed mainly on small birds but also on large moths and small mammals.  At Glen Banvie it would probably be feeding mainly on wheatears and meadow pipets.  They have fast flight in order to catch their prey and will sometimes even use vegetation to take them by surprise.  So keep your eyes open whilst up the glens because you could spot the smallest bird of prey, the merlin, or even the largest bird prey in the UK, the sea eagle (also called the white tailed eagle) if you are really lucky. 
Sea Eagle in flight

Friday 5 August 2011

Friday 5th August

The stalking season has started again and will run until October 20th so to help minimise disturbance we have our hillphone service in place. This allows walkers to call and get information about where stalks are taking place and advice about alternative routes in the area. The hillphone service is updated daily and information about stalking can be found on the notice board at the Glen Tilt car park, by calling 01796 481740 or online at then following the links. Please avoid crossing land where stalking is taking place to avoid disturbance to stalks.

You may have noticed while you have been out and about that there are quite a few purple coloured droppings lying about from many different animals. This is because the blaeberry is fruiting and the fruits are eaten by many different species of birds and animals. Ptarmigan, black and red grouse particularly rely on blaeberry foliage as a food source. In the Caladonian forest insects eat more blaeberry than any other understory plant and these insects are particularly important for capercaillie chicks in their first few weeks of their life.

Blaeberry flowering
There are quite a few different types of fungi out at the moment and one of the ones spotted in Glen Tilt was a stinkhorn. This particular mushroom as you may have guessed by the name smells particularly pungent, like rotten meat. This is to attract flies which will land on its slimy cap and pick up the spores to disperse them. You may come across a stinkhorn as a fruiting body when it is encased in a what appears to be a squidgy white ball. If you are out walking and smell something really bad then take a closer look, it may turn out to be something you do not expect.
Stinkhorn ©Peter A Ferns

Friday 29 July 2011

Friday 29th July

We have had some great sightings of ring ouzels up in Glen Tilt near Forest Lodge lately. Ring ouzels look similar to blackbirds but can be distinguished mainly by the white band across their breast. The live mainly in upland areas and are a summer resident, coming to Britain to in March/April to breed in gullies, crags and steep sided valleys. They will migrate in September and head back towards north-west Africa where they overwinter.

Ring ouzels are a red list species due to their declining population which is thought to be down to low first year survival rates and possibly a high adult mortality rate as well. If you fancy seeing ring ouzels then have a walk up Glen Tilt and you should be able to spot them flying about in the glen above forest lodge.

Thursday 28 July 2011

Thursday 28th July

The weather this last week has been exceptional. It has been very hot and sunny which has been great for spotting butterflies. Although we were seeing very few over the last few months we have been spotting a lot more now. Whilst out and about you can also hear many young buzzards around at the moment calling to their mother to be fed. The wet weather over that previous weeks have also made a lot of fungi grow so it is a good time to go out and test your identification skills.

We have loads of great events coming up including animal antics tomorrow and on 12th Aug between 1 and 4 pm at the castle grounds. You will get to have a look at skins, bones, feathers and nests of some of the animals you can expect to find in Scotland and can ask questions and test your knowledge on wildlife. Also we have feeders and homes on Tuesday 2nd Aug at the Atholl Estates Information Centre where you can come along and make bee, bug or bird boxes. This event is between 2 and 4 pm. Next week we also have a wet and wild event from 10:30 am until 12 on the 19th July, meeting at the information centre where you can discover what lives in the rivers around Blair Atholl.

Saturday 23 July 2011

Saturday 23rd July

I would like to take this opportunity to remind you about the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.  Walkers, dog walkers and cyclists alike are all welcome to use the estate to enjoy the great outdoors and we accommodate the public by providing a car park and waymarked trails so you can get right into the heart of the glens without disturbing the running of the estate.  All we ask in return is that you please remember that this is a working estate and that you are responsible and follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.  This means acknowledging and following signs if it means you are redirected from where you want to go for your own safety and keeping the place clean by not leaving litter lying around. 

Please be aware that your access rights do not apply when there are either clear signs indicating you should not be there, the area is clearly maintained like a garden or is enclosed by a wall such as in the castle grounds and when you have been asked to go a different way by a member of staff for yours and their safety.  We had an incident on Sunday when a cyclist refused to take an alternative route when he was asked to because sheep were being moved up Glen Tilt after being clipped.  The path itself was very narrow with steep drops on either side, one leading to a river.  Because the gentleman was in too much a hurry he ploughed on into the sheep scattering them everywhere and separating lambs from ewes because they panicked.  In turn he created a very dangerous situation.  By ignoring all requests for him to take an alternative route he broke the access code.  In the end it took three hours for the shepherd and the dogs to calm the sheep back down and get them to their new location. 

By following the Scottish Outdoor Access Code it means that everyone has the right to use and enjoy the great outdoors and also estates and businesses can function with minimal disturbance.  Please don’t be irresponsible; signs and advice are there for a reason to keep you and everyone else safe.  We are incredibly lucky to be able to have access into wild areas as not many countries have the same rights so if we all respect each other we can continue to use and enjoy the great outdoors and see the wonders that wildlife has in store for us.

More information can be found at

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Wednesday 13th July

Today we went out with the Cairngorms biodiversity officer to look for dragon and damselflies to learn a bit more about them and their life cycle.  We had great weather for it as it was really sunny and hot and the damselflies were out in their masses even if the dragonflies were absent.  As we were trying to capture them with a net to identify them, birds were swooping down from above the loch and rainbow trout were jumping up from below also trying to catch them to fill their bellies.  The swifts were also swooping across the surface of the water with their beaks open grabbing a drink on the move before going back to capture more damselflies. 

We saw many different species including one which was only known to have come up as far north as Loch of the Lowes.  This was the Azure Damselfly.  It is a blue damselfly which can be identified by having a U shape on the abdominal segment 2, unlike the common damselfly which has a club shaped marking.  It was a great find and even better to know that this species is expanding its range and moving further north.  There has been a population of Azure damselflies identified at castle Fraser but it is thought that this must be a relic population. 

Other species we encountered were the Common Blue, Large Red, Emerald and the Blue-tailed Damselfly.  The latter we only saw in its larval form and could be distinguished by having no markings on its lamella (the three tail like structure on its rear).  Emerald larvae on the other hand had three vertical lines on their lamella.  Whilst pond dipping for damselflies we also caught a very large diving beetle larvae and spent a lot of time trying to avoid walking on the hundreds of tiny frogs and toads which had just emerged from the water.  All in all it was a good day, very informative and a lot of fun.