We’re Buzzin’ … for Peat’s Sake!

In the second of our Blogs on the upcoming #HelpingItHappen2018 awards – recognising rural success – our focus turns to the extraordinary work being done to protect and enhance our natural environment. We can all take it for granted: we take a walk, ride or drive into the countryside and it is all ‘there’ to be enjoyed. But day in, day out – a small army of folk are working to make sure tomorrow’s generations can do just the same …

If you’ve never been to the Morvern peninsular, you must go. It is one of Scotland’s most remote and stunning locations. The Drimnin estate covers some 7,000 acres of the peninsular’s western tip – looking out to Mull, neighbouring Ardnamurchan and the open seas. Drimnin is investing in conservation schemes to ensure the area remains a wildlife haven. The land covers rugged, inaccessible coastline – inlets, wee coves and pebble-covered beaches together with ancient woodland, heather moorland and some rich pasture land. It is undisturbed by traffic – a wild paradise that’s rich in unique flora and fauna.

Yet although this is wild, it is a managed landscape – managed in a way that encourages biodiversity. The animal and bird life of Drimnin is very varied: you’ll see Golden and Sea Eagles, Buzzards and other raptors. Alongside the farmed Beef Cattle and Sheep are Red and Roe Deer, Pine Martens, Wildcats, Otters and Seals. One of their conservation schemes includes the restructuring the Mungosdails Forest and the Auliston woodland. They are introducing native species alongside the enclosure of existing woodland to allow and encourage regeneration.As part of this whole process, the estate is also restoring ancient drystone dykes, as well as planning the exclusion of cattle from the Scheduled Ancient Monuments – most especially around the ruins of the old Auliston, Carrag and Port a’Bhata villages.

The industrialised timber industry of the 19th and 20th centuries is being replaced. The emphasis has shifted – away from heavily mechanised business. The emphasis is now on biodiversity, amenity and accessibility, protection and conservation – together with the re-making of native woods and forests. Drimnin is at the forefront of this work.

Another estate – this time in the Angus Glens – is undertaking some pioneering work in biodiversity. Glenogil is between Glen Clova and Glen Lethnot. Over the last three years, a team of German scientists led by Dr Daniel Hoffman from the Game Conservancy Deutschland, has been visiting to examine biodiversity in Scotland. In that short space of time, their study has counted an extra 35 species: curlew, lapwing, black grouse, merlin and mountain hares – the latter typically culled in some moors but not at Glenogil. The increase in numbers is attributed solely to the managed habitat, most notably predator control and heather burning.

The first two years focused on the ecosystem of the moor: 103 bird species have now been recorded. Not all the birds breed on the estate, but the environment provides nesting during migration and foraging for the wildlife, helping the numbers grow. The research has demonstrated how good habitat management ensures a high level of biodiversity of various species – and encourages new and often endangered species to grow in numbers.

Danny Lawson, head gamekeeper at Glenogil Estate, says: “Land management has never been under closer scrutiny. Much has changed in the sector over the last 15 years including at Glenogil, and it is only fair that we recognise where our management is creating a rich tapestry of wildlife.

Away from the wild open spaces – in our capital of Edinburgh – is a company on a mission. The Scottish Bee Company is marketing premium bee products internationally – online and in luxury Scottish retailers – to supports a programme of reinvestment in Scotland’s bee farming industry. Founded by husband and wife team, Iain and Suzie Millar, the couple became fascinated by bees and the role they play in crop pollination. They were “aghast” at the well-documented decline of wild and managed bee species and the potential effects on the wider ecosystem and resolved to do what they could to help.

Iain says: “We weren’t inclined to sit on the sidelines and watch the decline of species that does such important pollination work for us. The problem was what to do about it? Sure, we could set up a couple of hives of honey bees, but we felt that the scale of the problem of pollinator decline demanded a bolder solution. To make an impact on the pollinator population, we would need villages full of hobby beekeepers to make the same impact as one average-sized commercial bee farm, so we figured the latter was the way to go. Unfortunately, neither of us are bee farmers. Where we did think we could offer some value though was on the commercial side”.

The resulting model is a simple one. The Scottish Bee Company invests in hives and bees for existing, commercial scale, bee farmers – and contracts to buy the resulting honey at a pre-agreed rate. Iain adds: “We take care of the processing, jarring, sales and marketing and let the bee farmer get on with the business of farming bees unencumbered. We retain ownership of the hives, so we shoulder a lot of the ongoing risk and incentivise bee farmers to increase the pollinator population. It’s a virtuous circle; effective pollination dramatically increases crop yield, supports managed moorland and produces a premium Scottish food product that is sought after at home and overseas”.

The proof is very much in the pudding: their pilot year ended in 2017 with hives placed with bee farms across Scotland. Capacity has now been increased tenfold in 2018. Suzie talks of their management of the increased scale saying: “We’re acutely aware of the need to manage growth. We’re alert to the risks of overloading the capacity, so we’re working hard to ensure that we increase honey bee numbers in a responsible fashion. If we don’t have the right people in place to manage the bees sustainably, we won’t invest.”

We can see the bees buzzing above ground: but what of the land we walk on?

The Scottish countryside wouldn’t be what it is without peat. Peatlands are not only a key part of our landscape – they are also the foundation of much of our cultural and natural heritage. Peat soil covers around a fifth of the whole of Scotland’s land mass. Internationally important not only for their support of flora and fauna, they are a huge and crucial carbon store. It is estimated our peatlands hold up to 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon! That said,  However, 80 % of Scotland’s peatlands are under threat and require care and attention to restore and protect them for our future.

Thankfully, land owners are working hard to help. At Dryhope Farm in the Borders, Philiphaugh estate is linking peatland restoration with the salmon fishing on the River Tweed. The blanket bog at Dryhope retains, releases and filters the water that flows down the Kirkstead burn into St Mary’s Loch and from there into the Yarrow Water – a tributary of the Tweed.

The damaged, bare peat – a result of historic sheep management on the bog – together with drainage channels have reduced the peatland’s capacity to stay wet and regulate water flow. Restoring the ‘sponge’ effect in the top of the catchment can help to reduce flash flooding in the lower catchment. This – especially in the winter months – can shift huge amounts of gravel that damage and wash away fish ova. The project is also designed to ensure that in period of extended dry weather, increasing the upland sponge effect will help to better regulate water flow and prevent rivers drying up in the summer – again, improving the resilience of the fish.

The Kirkstead burn is one of many vital spawning burns for trout and salmon in the upper Tweed. Salmon fishing supports over 500 jobs and contributes £24m per year to the local economy, so keeping the river and its tributaries in a healthy condition is vital to businesses and the local community. Philiphaugh worked with the Tweed Forum – a leading local charity dedicated to enhancement of the river – to create a programme and also help source funding. It brought together Peatland Action, Forest Carbon and SRDP.

The benefits are significant: the work at Dryhope will not only improve water flow regulation as planned but will also increase carbon storage, improve water quality and create better habitats for upland wildlife, such as Black Grouse and Hen harriers. This is the first project to be part funded by corporate social responsibility through the Peatland Code.

Still on the Peat trail, Farr Estate – just south of Inverness – is following a similar plan. They have been taking part in moorland restoration projects for many years. Philip MacKenzie of Farr Estate says: “As well as carbon storage, this innovative partnership project will provide a wealth of benefits to both people and animals. The work will help to enhance the precious home of rare birds, mammals and plants.” Jenny McCallum of the Tomatin Moorland Group, adds: “These crucial projects will help to restore and conserve these uplands so that future generations can enjoy our amazing peatland and blanket bogs. Estates in Tomatin have adopted an innovative, collaborative approach to conservation, at landscape-scale, to achieve significant benefits”.

Finally in this round up, we visit the Invercauld estate in the Cairgorms National Park. The Meall Gorm area of Invercauld is an area of outstanding beauty. A huge project has been undertaken to best manage the landscape for future generations. Over 5,000 metres of redundant fences have been removed. New fences have been created and marked to reduce the strike risk of capercaillie. The fences are also helping to manage herbivore impacts and aiding the natural regeneration and planting of native tree species, creating natural corridors and increasing the woodland edge habitat for priority species – including Black Grouse, Capercaillie and Red Squirrel.

Since the project start over a decade ago, success has been clear: there has been more than 400 acres of natural regeneration of native species including Scots Pine, Silver Birch, Alder, Rowan and Juniper. In addition, around 40 miles of new woodland edge and the planting of 80 acres of new Scots Pine, Birch and Grey and Eared Willow. When it comes to land management – recognising the multitude of uses and users – the Invercauld project shows how a collaborative approach can succeed, resulting not only in very significant natural tree regeneration and native woodland planting but also accommodating the area’s access for walking, climbing and stalking. All combine for successful environmental, social and economic benefit helping to drive the rural economies and to make local communities more sustainable. Hats off to them.

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Thanks for reading!