Bashing balsam at the basin


A cloudy day, but dry and hot.

I can’t deny that a description like this is a pretty cliched opening, but that was the mental note I made on arrival at Montrose Basin today. A 5-minute scan of the basin, unarguably my favourite nature reserve, showed nesting common ternseider on the water and basking common seals. Today’s destination, however, was at the stream that ran into it, underneath a canopy of hawthorne and sycamore.

Like secret agents, our team, having swept the area, fanned out. We had access to the latest gadgets of the Scottish Wildlife Trust: fluorescent orange gloves. We had been given our orders. And our mission, should we choose to accept it: neutralise Himalayan balsam.

Himalayan Balsam is a native of… well, can you guess where? It was brought to Britain in 1839, on the same boat as two other notorious plants, Giant Hogweed and Japanese Knotweed. Ironically, the almost superhuman ‘divide and conquer’ abilities of all these plants was why they were brought over in the first place: they were quick-growing, fast-spreading plants, and was meant to appeal to low-income plant enthusiasts, who would now be able to grow gardens rivalling the aristocracy.  The rest is history.

Balsam has rapidly  established itself along basin, spreading its seeds via pods packed so densely with liquid, that the slightest contact causes them to explode and fling their seeds yonder. Hence we were cutting them down while they were still in flower, before their seed pods develop, to nip their spread in the bud.

Actually, to stop the balsam, we had to take them out a bit lower than the bud. The shoot of a Himalayan Balsam grows in an L-shape; it grows diagonally, before shooting upwards. A nick-point develops where the shoot begins to develop vertically, so the plant needs to be uprooted below that to be stopped. Actually, seeing that knick point, and how easily the plant comes out when pulled below it, is enough to put doubts in your mind about evolution; it almost seems like the balsam was designed to be uprooted by people.

Once uprooted, the balsam are stacked up around the woods, and the numerous groups that come to do the exact same as us tread over them on the way. This helps kick-start the decomposition of the balsam shoots, so recycling their nutrients to the soil.

Job’s a good ‘un, as they say. Being on my way to Montserrat tomorrow, it was good to get out into the field and do a bit of practical conservation.

Maligned Mr Fox: the truth about Britain’s last remaining canid

Red fox

Vulpes vulpes. The most widespread member of the carnivore family. No animal divides opinion as much as the red fox. In spite of every chicken lost to a fox by farmers up and down the country (not least our own), I come out in their favour. But there are many “real countrymen” who continue to insist that there is a bilateral divide about foxes, between uneducated “townies”,  and “countrymen” who all agree with them that foxes are malicious “vermin”.

Recently, this has resurfaced with Theresa May,fresh into Number 10 and adamant for a repeal of the Hunting Ban, alongside Angela Leadsom, the new environment minister.  In light of this, and the facts we live in the 21st century, the facts need to be out there.

Firstly, foxes do not “kill more than they eat”. This is the trump card played by the “real countrymen”, but the behaviour many people mistake for wanton killing is nothing of the sort. What it really is, is the creation of a store of food. Not only is this more economical for a predator than killing multiple individual chickens one at a time, it ensures a fox will have a supply in colder seasons, when it is  more difficult to hunt.

Red fox sniffing tree branch









Nor are fox numbers increasing-and certainly not since the Hunting Ban, as some people claim. The fox population has remained relatively stable, at around 250,000, and like all animals fluctuates. This was shown in a 2002 study, taken during the one year ban on foxhunting due to foot-and-mouth, which found very little alteration of fox numbers from the previous year, and none at all in many places. For a serious decrease in fox numbers to occur,whether through hunting or shooting, it was estimated 64% of the population would have to be killed- in other words, 150,000 foxes each year. Indeed, fox hunting is only estimated to be responsible for only around 5% of fox deaths, according to a study by Oxford’s David MacDonald.

Saprotrophic mange is the biggest factor in controlling Britain’s fox population. The urban fox population of Bristol, where fox densities are the highest of anywhere in the UK,  is still recovering from an outbreak of saprotrophic mange in 1994 that reduced the city’s population by over 80% . And as for fears about foxes spreading this disease, Bristol University studies found very few fox scats, the main agent of mange, due to foxes being incredibly tidy by  hiding them away. There is a far greater risk of mange being spread by dog scats, fro irresponsible dog owners who won’t clean up their pets’ mess.

And of course there are media scare stories about foxes attacking children. These attacks are in fact very rare, but the tabloids are quick to jump on any such fox attack. By contrast, from 2014 to 2015 alone there were over 7000 hospital admissions for victims of dog attacks. The fact that the majority of these are ignored creates a misleading image of foxes.

In this day and age, we know that every species fulfills a role in the ecosystem. Foxes play an important role in keeping the number of rabbits and rodents in check. By trying to uphold the old Victorian division of ‘good wildlife’ and ‘vermin’, we hinder real progress in conservation.


A letter to my MSP

This is an email I sent about a month ago, to Rosanna Cunningham, my MSP:

Dear Mrs Cunningham,
My name is Edward Grierson. I live on Newmiln Farm, which you visited back in 2006. First of all, congratulations on your appointment both as my MSP and as Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for the Environment. The latter appointment is the reason I am writing to you, specifically  on the subject about wildlife crime.
Wildlife crime is a serious issue, especially in Scotland. The number of incidents in Scotland where raptors were killed in suspicious circumstances increased from 18 in 2014 to 20 in 2015. If we are to measure number if individual deaths recorded, then there has been an increase from 18 in 2012 to 40 in 2015- and that’s only counting raptors. It’s also worth noting that of the 219 confirmed poisoning incidents from 2005-14 alone, 57% were on Scottish grouse moors and a further 24% on Scottish land used for pheasant shoots.  The largest national park in the UK, the Cairngorms National Park, is a wildlife crime hotspot: in 2014, the first white-tailed eagle to fledge in East Scotland for 200 years disappeared over North Glenbuchat Estate, which had already had 4 wildlife crime incidents to its name. Earlier this year, a male hen harrier, ‘Lad’ found dead, suspected shot, near Newtonmore, and a goshawk has recently been euthanised in the Strathdon area after being shot.
Yet despite wildlife crime being a very serious problem, I cannot help but feel wildlife crime is not being treated with enough importance. There have only been 49 convictions from 1994-2014  for raptor persecution in Scotland, when there were 779 incidents in the same time period. There has still been no conviction for the 16 red kites and 6 buzzards killed in Black Isle two years ago, while Leadhills Estate, owned by Scottish Moorland Group’s chairman Lord Hopetoun, has only received 2 convictions out of 42 incidents of wildlife crime since 2004.
I am hoping that you can stand up to wildlife crime in Scotland. One strategy would be to extend powers to the SSPCA for tackling wildlife crime, as I am aware Scottish Greens MSP Mark Russell asked you this question on May the 12th. Your reply was it will be implemented ‘in due course’. Can you elaborate on the details of this statement. At what point do you intend to implement SSPCA’s extended powers, and how will they be extended? What strategies do you plan to implement to tackle wildlife crime in Scotland?
I am eager to hear your reply,
Edward Grierson
I haven’t heard back from Rosanna Cunningham yet.
In case you were wondering, an example of extended investigatory powers to SSPCA has been given by the Dumfries and Galloway Council, to aid the SSPCA in illegal dog smuggling. The fact a local council has given the SSPCA investigatory powers should give Scottish Parliament, not to mention Westminster, something to think about.
Unfortunately, there have been a number of incidents across the country since I sent this letter. For a start,a satellite-tagged hen harrier, ‘Chance’, was found dead on a South Lanarkshire grouse moor (it hasn’t been specified which one yet, but Lord Hopetoun’s Leadhills Estate is a strong contender, judging from past events).
There have also been two notable incidents have since occured in England: firstly, the shooting of another goshawk, found dead in Longendale Valley, in the Peak District National Park, with a “spent plastic shotgun cartridge” found nearby. It’s no surprise that the Derwent Valley, once a goshawk hotspot, is now down to three pairs. The second is a keeper on Mossdale Estate, in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, filmed setting pole traps, an incident which has caused Mossdale’s resignation from the Moorland Association. Having got off lightly with a police caution, the local police have now admitted he should have received charges.
The second two incidents are particularly shocking, because these are meant to be protected areas. These national parks were created to offer a haven for our wildlife, including raptors. It raises the question as to whether they should really be considered national park status. By failing to maintain coherent protected areas, we lag behind  the poorest countries in Africa.
So what can we do about this? Well, if, like me, you have had enough of raptors still being killed after decades of negotiation with moorland owners, and if you want our protected areas to be protected in more than name, and if you would rather see our uplands being allowed to evolve naturally, without being intensively controlled for grouse shooting, I would recommend signing Mark Avery’s petition to ban driven grouse shooting in England. With over 50,000 signatures, you’ll be getting your voice heard, and  calling to ban grouse shooting is the simplest way to make killing raptors for a vested interest a thing of the past, and wilder uplands a thing of the future.
UPDATE: There is now an online petition for licensing for all gamebird shooting in Scotland, supported by the RSPB, Scottish Wildlife Trust and Scottish Raptor Study Group. If this petition was successful, Scotland would catch up with much of mainland Europe in having such a licensing system. So do sign this, but do it quickly- it closes on August 22nd!