Friday 27 May 2011

Friday 27th May

The weather has been quite changeable here over the last few weeks from wet to dry, windy to calm. In other words it has been typical Scottish weather. The rain, although great for some wildlife, was not appreciated by all especially our resident red squirrel who visits the feeder just outside the office. It was seen huddled up in the feeder box trying to escape the rain and get some grub at the same time. It is amazing how small a space squirrels can squeeze into and still have room to nibble away at the nuts below. Well that just goes to show that you can’t say you never see anything interesting in the rain.

The parade day for the private army at Atholl Estates is being held tomorrow at Blair Castle at 2:40 pm with a talk beforehand at 11 am in the castle ballroom and then the Highland Games will take place on Sunday between 10 am and 4:30 pm. Come along to witness some caber tossing and wrestling, listen to the pipers competing with each other join in the tug of war. If you have the weekend off then why not spend it at Blair Atholl to join in the fun events.

Saturday 21 May 2011

Saturday 21st May

Over the last few weeks and particularly whilst walking around the Glen Tilt trail I have been coming across a large number of dor beetles.  They all seem to be the same species with a purple colouration to their exoskeleton and they appear to be out in their masses at one point of the Glen Tilt trail.  I couldn’t walk more than two steps without just about standing on at least one of these beetles. 

Dor beetles are quite pretty with their shiny bodies and play a key role in cleaning up our environment.  They are dung beetles and eat their weight in dung each day.  Competition for dung is low so they have adapted well to eating a food source that should never be limited in supply.  They are normally associated with cow dung but they would have been feeding on sheep manure up Glen Tilt.  Their manoeuvring skills whilst flying are quite poor so they often crash into cattle.  These beetles can grow up to about 25 mm long and are quite big.  In fact they are one of the largest dung beetles in Britain. 

After these beetles have mated the female will dig a hole with side chambers under a selected piece of cow manure and the male will help to clear the soil.  He will then bring in balls of dung to line the tunnel and then the female will lay her eggs in each of the chambers.  This provides the larvae with food to last the first few months of their life.  The larvae will feed until they are fully grown then will pupate underground emerging as adults the following year. 

There are hundreds of species of insects and beetles in the UK and you will be surprised at just how many you can find in a small piece of deadwood or at the bottom of your garden.  Have a look and see if you can spot one that you have never seen before. 

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Wednesday 18th May

Whilst out walking on the Glen Banvie trail yesterday one of the rangers came across a couple of pellets lying near the fence. On investigation they were found to contain fur, feathers and bones. We originally believe they were produced by a short eared owl looking at the size and the shape as they were thumb sized, grey and smooth, long and thin and have a rounded end at one side and were tapered at the other. This was really interesting since short eared owls could potentially be living in these moors but they have never as yet been seen.


On further inspection when the pellets were dissected they were also found to contain bird feather tips, some of which were quite large (2 cm) which would have been from a very large bird. There were also brown feathers, a small spinal cord, what looked like field vole teeth and a pelvis. Short eared owls mainly prey on voles and so the pellet would have contained a large number of small mammal bones but this was not the case for these pellets. On finding so many feather tips we are now uncertain as to the species the pellets came from. If you feel like you could identify the species then feel free to leave a comment and see if we can solve this pellet mystery.



On another note we are very privileged to say that Blair Atholl has been identified as one of the best villages in Europe. Forty villages have been chosen to be filmed for a French television programme and we are the only one from Scotland to have this privilege. They will be filming the Highland games, the Parade day where the private army will be out marching around the grounds and around the estate. We games and parade will be held on the 28th and 29th May so come along and you never know you might make an appearance on French tv.

Saturday 14 May 2011

Saturday 14th May

Bumblebees are the topic for today since they are very important and interesting little creatures even if they are not everyone’s favourite insect. You will have probably seen quite a lot of large bees and wasps, the queens, flying around trying to find a convenient place to start their hive. I know I have seen plenty around the estate. For bumblebees this will be either below ground in old mouse holes or in thick vegetation like grass tussocks. They mated last year and will have stored the sperm inside their bodies during their winter hibernation ready to use it in spring to fertilise their eggs. You will see them drinking nectar and collecting pollen to feed their larvae which will eventually turn into female workers and later on near the end of summer the queen will start producing males and queens. 
Bumbleebees emerging from the nest
There are 24 species of bumblebee in the UK of which six are listed under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan as they are in urgent need of help. Another two species have very fragmented and small populations, one of which is the Great Yellow and only occurs around north and west Scotland. Three species have already become nationally extinct in the UK in the last 70 years and most of the other species are declining. It is fair to say that bumblebees are not doing so well and the reason being is primarily down to changes in agricultural practices. Since the World War 2 we have lost over 97% of our wildflower meadows and the increased use of herbicides and pesticides have not helped the situation. But why is this important?

Bumblebees are incredibly hard workers and are very important and play a vital role in pollinating wildflowers and certain crops. Together insect pollination is worth over £400 million to the economy. Without bumblebees we would lose many wildflower species and fruit and vegetables prices would likely soar. You can help by planting native wildflowers in your garden rather than cultivated plan to like busy lizzies or scented geraniums which have either no nectar or pollen or are too hard to get to by bees. Please do not be tempted to go out and pick wildflowers in the countryside as it is against the law to uproot wildflowers without the land owner’s permission and in some cases to even collect seeds or uproot them even with the land owner’s permission. More information on this can be found in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. You could have up to a dozen different species of bee in your garden if you have a good variety of food plants for them which in turn will be great for other insects, birds and animals.

Just to sum up with a few little bits of interesting information that you may not know about bumblebees. They do produce honey but in very small amounts so it cannot be harvested by humans. They also have ‘smelly feet’. When they visit a flower they leave a chemical scent which tells other bees not to waste time and energy on that flower as a bee has already taken the nectar. Different species also have different tongue lengths so they are adapted for pollinating and feeding out of different plants. And finally the cuckoo bumblebee is parasitic and will invade a nest of a specific bumblebee species. She will then either kill or evict the queen and take over the workers, making them raise her young. This behaviour is similar to the cuckoo bird which removes the eggs of another birds nest, lays its eggs in their place and then leaves the nest owner to raise its young.

Cuckoo bumblebee

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Wednesday 11th May

The black grouse surveying season is almost at the end and they are doing very well on the estate. There are many leks around with up to about 15 males displaying and strutting their stuff for the ladies. Numbers of black grouse in Britain have seriously declined so much that they are now a red list species. The decline is mainly down to habitat loss and overgrazing. It is therefore very important that there are dedicated volunteers who will go out and survey them so we can keep track of their numbers and see if we can help them recover to a healthy and sustainable population. I would recommend becoming a surveyor next year. Yes you have to get up very early and be on site for sunrise but you can spot so much interesting wildlife whilst you are out there. Today for example I managed to spot a cuckoo which was a first for me as I have always found them very elusive, I could hear them but never see them. There were also loads of sand martens flying in and out of their nests nearby which was nice to watch and hundreds of red deer grazing in the hills. You can even hear foxes barking if you get there early enough. It is a great time in the morning to see wildlife and very satisfying to know you are doing your bit to help the black grouse.

Friday 6 May 2011

Friday 6th May

The weather has turned here so it has been raining for the last few days which is good news for the plants because they have been in desperate need of a good watering.  The flowers are flourishing especially on the drive up to the castle grounds which is covered in cuckoo flowers, dandelions, some daffodils and lesser celandine.  It is a good time to go out looking at some of the spring flora and fauna around the estate.

If you are interested in history then a nice walk up Glen Tilt should tantalise the brain cells.  There was once many settlements in Glen Tilt in the 17th century which probably dated back much further but unfortunately our records do not go that far back.  These settlements would have been rented as small farming grounds and houses by the estate.  Auchmarkmore for example, which can still be seen heading  through Glen Tilt up from Gilberts Bridge,  was first recorded in 1705 when it was two brothers by the name of Stewart. There also used to be a school which taught up to 60 children at Auchgobhal between 1776 and 1787 so there were a few hundred people living in the glens. 

As better agricultural practices developed all these small settlements were combined into larger ones which would have been rented out most likely for sheep farming.  Auchmarkmore  dissapeared from the records in 1790 when again it was occupied by the Stewarts.  These larger areas of land would have provided the estate with a higher rent.  This occurred between the 1780s - 1820s and was a very gradual and slow process and by the time the Highland clearances came about there would have been few people living in Glen Tilt.   So if history is your interest then what more reason do you need to come and get some exercise in the glens and see how many ruins of settlemets you can see.