Friday 30 April 2021

A Spring walk on the bog

 What's happening on Islay peatlands just now?

INHT has started its rounds on the breeding bird surveys, we have been contracted to undertake of the SAC sites adopted by ACT/CANN (Argyll countryside Trust & Collaborative Action for Natura Networks).  This gives me a great opportunity to escape the computer and emails and get out and see what stage nature is at in the season.  

It also provides an opportunity to inspire people to start exploring Islay and Jura peatlands and engage with our Community Peatlands Project either through picking up a copy of our Peatland Passport or get you cameras and pencils out and capture what peatland means to you for our photo and poetry competition.

Cast Northern Eggar moth cocoon

Our migrant birds may have only just started piling in, however our resident breeders  have been busy since the end of March.  On the bogs, waders are on territory around peatland pools, Redshank, Lapwing and a few Dunlin.  I saw the first newly hatched duckling chicks of Mallard.  A joy not to be missed is the bubbling, fluty notes of the Skylark ascending skywards into the blue expanse above.
Bleached hummock of Sphagnum capilifolium

 I like to keep note of the state of the flora, a much better marker for the season.  Despite a very sunny month, it has been tinged with cool, even chilly winds for the most part.  Most significantly for our bog/peatland habitats no rain!  Peatlands thrive on high air moisture and high rainfall to keep the peat wet, and overcast conditions to prevent too much evaporation, which is something we cannot claim for this past month.


Sphagnum cuspidatum in the edge of a dubh loch

This was sadly evident walking the bog this week, each footstep heard with a rustle and a crunch of dry parched vegetation.  Where the Sphagnums should have been soft and full of colour they are bleached from the sun and form a dry crust, particularly on the hummock forms that cannot draw moisture up so easily from deeper layers of peat. The small sphagnum pools which should have been under water were empty with a slight moist layer of Sphagnum cuspidatum, those in the edges of the dubh lochs moist and plump.  As a walker there were no dilemmas about which was the driest route or how to get over the wide soft squelchy bits without water going over my wellies!

 The drop in water levels was evident in the larger lochan pools with bare peat showing at the edges and deep overhangs which could make getting out difficult if you did not have wings.  I found one edge with many scrape marks made with 5 toed claws, obviously the sign of use by an otter.


 Amongst the dubh lochs however, the state of permanent wetness provides a buffer to the drying wind and sun.  The first of the bog bean is coming into bloom, such a pretty, lacy flower projecting from the dark pools.  This will be in flower for most of May.  Apart from this the only other flowers requiring the services of the large Buff-tailed Bumblebees at present were the isolated clumps of willow and a few Common Milkwort.

Bog Bean

Male flowers of Willow (a dioecious plant, the male and female flowers are on separate plants)


Hare's-tail Cotton Grass
You can tell that the main form of pollination for these early flowers is by wind.  Hare's-tail Cotton Grass had already had its pollination period as all the single seed head stems were developing their fluffy white cotton tails.  Common Cotton Grass however was only just coming into 'flower', they differ in that multiple heads develop from the single stem, their yellow anthers dusted with pollen dangling ready for the wind to lift it and carry it in hope of being deposited on the stigma of another cotton grass head (what are the odds?.... quite slim, which is why vast amounts of pollen are produced by wind pollinated plants).  Also reliant on the wind are the Deer Grass (not actually a 'grass')
Common Cotton Grass head
with dangling male anthers
  it too was baring is pollen on its stiff bristly stems.  The cones of Bog Myrtle also need the wind, the deeply aromatic leaves net to sprout.
Common Cotton Grass
(female stigma at top of head)

Deer Grass (actually a sedge)

Cones of Bog Myrtle

Feur Lochain pools
The sunny day provided a stunning backdrop to a working walk, counting birds.  I watched the dark clouds skirt round the eastern hills, I assume depositing a light shower over the area of Port Ellen and the Oa.

Bog bean stems stretching out of the pools

Peatland Passport

Get out and explore for yourselves, pick up your Peat Passport at the Blue Letterbox (Port Ellen); Bowmore Post Office; Museum of Islay Life (Port Charlotte); Jura Community Shop.  Tick off the animals and plants that you see and get your pages stamped.  There is much useful information and a quick and easy guide to what to see on the moss.  

The Islay Nature Centre will be open mid May with more information on peatlands and other nature treasures on our islands.

Information on our Peatland Photo & Poetry Competition 2021

Islay and Jura Community Peatland Project 

Peatland Photo & Poetry Competition

We have now launched our summer competition, what does peatland mean to you?  We would like you to capture it in photo or verse (English or Gaelic) and enter into our competition.  It will be open to entries until July 31st 2021.  We have well known photographers Laurie Campbell and Brian Mathews and Donald Murray (Author) as judges for our competition.  Laurie has given us a talk to help inspire the photographers out there and Donald will be giving a talk on the 10th June to inspire you poets to write some verses on peatland.

We have categories to suit all age ranges and great prizes, donated from various local businesses and organisations.

Laurie will also pick out his favourite photo, the winner receiving a signed print of one of his photos. Jura Distiller has donated a prize for the overall poem.

Selection of runner up prizes given at the discretion of the judges.

Competiton Details below:

Two themes:

Environment and Wildlife          Work and Culture


Two forms of entry:

Photo                                              Poetry

Entry categories:


(Env & Wildlife)




(Env & Wildlife)



Poetry -Gaelic

(any catergory)



Adult (eng)

Adult (eng)

Adult (Gaelic)

Child 13-18

Child 13-18

Child 13-18 (eng)

Child 13-18 (eng)

Child 13-18 (Gaelic)

Child 10-12

Child 10-12

Child 10-12 (eng)

Child 10-12 (eng)

Child 10-12 (Gaelic)

Child 7-9

Child 7-9

Child 7-9 (eng)

Child 7-9 (eng)

Child 7-9 (Gaelic)


Planned prizes given to the best entry in each category and age group (children)

Adult prizes - £35 cash/voucher from sponsor: Islay Whisky Academy and Port Charlotte Hotel

Block of peat

mini peat cutting trophy

Children's Photography prizes:

£10 cash/voucher from sponsor Islay Studios

block of peat

Mini trophy 


Children's Poetry prizes:

£10 cash/voucher from sponsor; Celtic House

block of peat

Mini trophy  


Gaelic Poetry prizes

Equivalent values as above from Comunn na Gàidhlig


Peatland Poetry and Photo Competition rules:

Conditions of Entry

·         2 Categories may be entered (Environment and Wildlife; Work and Culture)

·         All photo entries must be submitted digitally via email with the title, category and name of the person submitting it in the file name (e.g. Golden Eagle- wildlife by Pete Banks)

·         Poetry entries may be digital of written, if the latter must ensure your entry is typed or very clearly written.  Please retain a copy of your work as it will not be possible to return all entries.
Entrants are permitted to enter up to 5 images to the competition across either category.
Image entry file size must be a jpg of medium to high resolution, not lower than 1MB nor exceed 6MB, and is recommended to be at least 1200 pixels on the longest length.
Images must be submitted by 10am, 31st July 2021.

·         Images may have been taken at any time previous to the closing date

·         Images must not include watermarks, borders, or signatures.
Black and white images are eligible for all categories.


·         The RHS Photographic Competition is open to all - apart from anyone associated with the competition including INHT employees, or trustee committee, funding partners and judges.
The entrant must be the original artwork creator and solely hold the copyright.
The image or poem must not have been previously published or entered in any other competition

·         It is the entrant’s responsibility to ensure that all necessary permissions are obtained from any person featured in a photograph.
Entrants for age categories must be between and under the age limit of the class on the day the competition closes.

Data protection

  • In entering the INHT Islay and Jura Community Peatland Project competition, you agree to the INHT using your details to process your application, only.
  • By entering, you also agree that if your work is shortlisted your details will be used alongside your artwork for promotion or public display in association with the project and competition only.


 A panel of judges will be appointed by the INHT (drawn from the INHT committee and wider photography and poetry circles). Representatives of Bòrd na Gàidhlig will judge the Gaelic poetry entries.

  •  the judges will select a shortlist of entries from each category, these will tour as part of a display around the islands and be exhibited on our Peatland Facebook page.
  • The competition judges will then choose from the selected short listed entries, to select winners of each category in each class.  In addition, where considered appropriate by judges ‘highly commended’ and ‘commended’ will be awarded.
  • In the unlikely event the judges reserve the right not to make any award if, in their opinion, none of the entries meet the required standard.
    The decision of the judges is final and no correspondence will be entered into.


  • Digital adjustments that maintain the integrity of the image are allowed.
  • It is not permitted to make any major physical change to the image. You may not, for example add or remove any part of the images through digital manipulation of plants, objects, animals, people, landscapes.
  • Accepted digital adjustments include dodging and burning, changes to tone and contrast and cropping.
  • An image will be rejected if in the opinion of the judges it appears that the image has been taken in such a way that wildlife law or animal welfare may have been breached; protected species or habitats have been compromised; or the image has been otherwise taken in an irresponsible manner.

 Entry form details

 Include details with your entry:

  • Name and address
  • For children's classes: date of birth/ age on date of entry
  • School attended, if local
  • A telephone no.
  • An email address
  • The title of your work
  • Category entered


Friday 5 March 2021

Islay & Jura Community Peatland Project


 A Celebration of Peatland  
Our wonderful Peat and Bog 

We are delighted to announce that we have been awarded the contract from the CANN peatland initiative to deliver their community engagement work on peatlands, highlighting the importance of the work and investment already delivered on the Rinns. The project has engaged with land managers to improve peatland management and help combat Rhododendron encroachment, investing significantly on the island with financial input and training. We have previously benefited from contracts with CANN to survey the peatland sites they have been working on for birds and Marsh Fritillary butterflies.
Bog Bean flower

This community work will tap into our already developed activity provision and much of our emphasis in 2021 will now be peat related. It will also enable us to develop our activities to include delivery of identification courses for upland species and wider community activities. We will have a new display in the centre and will undertake some further outreach work taking a mobile display to other parts of the island which will both spread the understanding of the importance of peatland for climate, habitat and also enable us to advertise the centre and the work that the Trust engages with. You can engage and keep up to date on the project through our Islay & Jura Community Peatland Facebook page, for those who do not do FB we will endevour to provide updated via the blog.

Sphagnum identification courses

Marsh Fritillary on Marsh Thistle

I hope to develop a wider scope for this providing it as a concept for other local organisations to latch onto and bring many more areas of the community into the framework to deliver a wider celebration of the importance of Islay and its neighbours, in the global beneficial impact of peatland, Islay after all has about 60% of its area covered in peat. One of the main draws for engagement will be a Peatland Passport booklet for individual or family self exploration and a photography and literary competition to capture the importance and to celebrate all aspects of what our peatlands mean to us. So over the winter months think about how you would want to celebrate and take your camera on a walk into the hills and bogs. A display of the entries will tour the island as part of a mobile exhibition in late summer. We will also aim to take a range of activities into the schools and engage with the High School John Muir group who use Gaelic as their medium to investigate the extent of peat within the  culture and heritage of Islay. 

Quite often over the years, this has been what
peatland has meant to me - long periods of sitting
on hillsides watching for bird activity

 Fiona MacGillivray

Friday 18 December 2020

Working with Argyll & Bute Council to trial a change in verge cutting times

Islay's verges some already species rich, act as
corridors to species like this Marsh Fritillary 
With the likes of organisations like Plantlife promoting the leaving of verges to flowers and pollinators, cutting late in the season after the flowers have finished and many councils up and down the country adopting these new management strategies the idea that this would be of value to Islay has evolved.  Many of the planting strategies promoted by Plantlife and other organisations  however would not fit in the Islay context, striping away the existing vegetation and re-seeding with flowers when our soils already have a rich and area-adapted seed bank would be expensive and intrusive.  

Through the Pollinator Initiative, Islay Natural History Trust and funded by The Botanist Foundation a two year study of the less major Islay routes on the Rinns was undertaken in 2017/18 to understand the value and importance of the verges for flowers and pollinators locally.  This work has been reported on through past articles and talks.  The next stage was to use this knowledge and persuade the Council to adapt and change it's strategy on verge management, after much negotiating a trial has now been agreed.

Islay Natural History Trust (INHT), The Botanist Foundation and Argyll and Bute Council will work together in a trial to seed areas of verge with Yellow Rattle a native plant that parasitises grasses that will subdue grass growth with the goal of reducing the need for mid-season cutting.  The plan is to seed up to 4km of verge around the north of Loch Gorm and Gruinart with Yellow rattle this autumn.  Verge growth and development next season will be closely monitored and these areas will be cut late August or later after the plants have seeded.

If successful the outcome will provide long term benefits for both flowers, habitat and council budgets creating a win-win situation for both sides of the biodiversity and budget lobby.

INHT and The Botanist Foundation, who will fund planting and monitoring developed the plan in discussion with council leader Robin Currie and local roads and amenity team leader, Julian Green.  The group also talked about verges that provide space for many orchids including areas about Port Wemyss and Portnahaven and the Mulreesh road (near Finlaggan).  It was agreed that short sections would be left for the orchids to flower and be cut and maintained by volunteers to ensure road safety. 

This is a great collaboration and hopefully one that will be the beginning of an adaptive approach to verge management here on Islay and Jura.

Yellow Rattle will be used as our catalyst for the suppression of grasses, the growth of which ultimately creates the major need for cutting at all.  This plant is an indicator species typically found in ancient meadows, it is an annual plant and requires the ability to set seed each year in order to persist in the grassland.  It has a parasitic nature, its roots latching onto those of surrounding grasses pulling nutrients from the grass roots for its own growth, thus the grasses round about these plants grow with less vigour. 

 With grasses less dominant the height of verge growth will be subdued and the need for mid season cutting less urgent.  It also provides opportunity for other flowering plants like clovers to have space amongst the sward providing more flowers for pollinating insects.  Flower rich verges act as bridges across areas of sheep grazed pasture and barley filled fields linking many areas of great habitat that Islay supports.

A verge on the Isle of Lewis low
growing, and herb rich

 Our verges on Islay are a mixed bag, some all grass, rampant in growth, others a more colourful mix of flowers of varying height and visual intrusion into the road users awareness and some an important area for orchids and other specialist plants.  Despite this variety there is one management strategy, a process of cutting when machinery is available and when the control of growth becomes a visible need at the end of May and through to July to provide good line of sight for the driver and for the pedestrian to step off the road with safety.  This cutting is welcomed by some and the loss of flowers coming into their peak cursed by others.

So next year look out for the signs indicating that verges are being left for the purposes of letting flowers flourish and enjoy the colour and beauty our rich flora provides. 



The facts about Yellow Rattle

Some facts to consider:-

  • Yellow Rattle is native and a viable local component in grasslands within the area and in no way aggressive in the manner suggested.  It is already present in the verges less than half a mile from the trial site.
  • Yes some of the roadsides around Loch Gorm are already rich in diversity, the most diverse have yellow rattle naturally as part of their make-up with dense patches of red clover and bird's foot trefoil both extremely good pollinator species enabled to grow amongst this. 
  • The main section 2.5km that is within the trial however is the least diverse and heavily burdened with thick grasses which do not allow much other plant diversity to take hold, most likely the result of better soil fertility as they run alongside improved grassland with associated fertiliser spill off. 
  • The reason for only introducing yellow rattle is to subdue grass and enable a more open sward for other diverse seed stock within the soil to have the chance to develop. 
  • There is no guarantee that the seed will germinate, the grasses are dominated with Couch grass and Cock's Foot both aggressive dominant grasses, I know as I have physically hand scythed the area to prepare the ground for seeding, I wouldn't waste my valuable time if I did not think it was worth it!

Surveying the verges before trial. This verge shows
the barrier to seed spread that is along
most of the verge within the trial
The point raised as to the risk of spread into adjacent areas, is a viable point, one which has been considered.  In this instance the sowing is only within the one metre strip that the council cuts, bordering this on the full length of the roadside is at least a further 1-2m of thick matted grass, bramble, ditch or willow where stray yellow rattle seed will not take root and the adjacent grasslands are either sheep grazed or cut for silage which is likely to be before yellow rattle casts its seed and therefore the plant will not persist. 

Yellow rattle starts to develop and germinate in spring and completely dies at the end of the season, no roots or plant remains over winter.  Current farm management practices should naturally negate natural germination or development of cast seed and prevent spread of the plant beyond the verge area.

  • Fields are grazed by sheep prior to setting aside for silage and sheep will naturally graze out such growth.  I have witnessed sheep nipping off the flowering heads of yellow rattle so they will graze it out in preference and not enable seeding.
  • Once left for silage fertiliser encourages growth of grasses which will out compete species such as yellow rattle if they have persisted after sheep grazing.
  • Silage is cut earlier usually than the plant is ready to seed from late July onwards and even if it has got to the flowering stage will be cut and not supply the soil with seed for growth the following year.
  • There was mention of barley as a grass and hence would be adversely affected by yellow rattle. 
    • barley is not sown here until after the beginning of April and hence no yellow rattle would have grass roots to latch onto to germinate in time for the season.  
    • As far as I am aware all barley fields are sprayed with herbicide to kill off competing plants and therefore would kill off any yellow rattle which has germinated.

The problem for yellow rattle survival is that it is an annual and as such needs to seed every season to persist in the grassland.  Before the advent of early cutting for silage it would have been widespread in meadows cut for hay, modern farming has resulted in its wide decline and only persists where grasslands are regularly left uncut until late in the season, the large ancient meadow at Smaull Farm a prime example but this field is managed for this very purpose.  

INHT and The Botanist Foundation would never consider introducing any plant species that would cause harm to the natural environment.  This project is based on hard facts and consideration of scientifically collected data and not on a whim with disregard to the environment it will affect.  We would certainly not add yellow rattle in all areas, where verges are already species rich or the grasses already a minor feature, this would not add value to an already rich habitat.

Here are some links from across the spectrum including one from a farming forum where some consider they have some issue with yellow rattle, however most address the plant with the open outlook and consider the ease in eliminating it if some spread should occur.

Quote from Scottish Wildlife Trust information

"If Yellow rattle is no longer wanted on a site, flowers can be cut before they can produce seed and as there is no seed bank in the soil the plant will not appear the following year."

Fiona MacGillivray

Tuesday 23 June 2020

For the love of Peat

Marsh Fritillary on Marsh Thistle
INHT has been undertaking surveys on SPA (Special Protection Areas) sites on the Rhinns for the CANN peatland restoration project recording breeding birds and the populations of Marsh Fritillary butterflies for the past couple of years.  This has provided extra revenue for the charity and a chance to directly undertake recording of species for our database.  This fine weather (when the wind in not blowing a hoolly!), warm and sunny, has had the butterflies out and it is so nice to see the Marsh Fritillary, one of Islay's prettiest butterflies.  The adults are only on the wing for about 4-6 weeks so there is only a short time to see them and for them to have the right conditions to breed and set forth the next generation which spends the rest of the year as caterpillars.
Marsh Fritillary and Small Heath

Our peat bogs are wondrous places, colourful and with little gems for an observer to appreciate and photograph.  Specialised plants and birds making the most of insects and the limited nutrients the bog can provide.  When you get down low they are really forests in miniature, the Ling Heather and Bog Cotton are the trees and the sphagnum mosses the herb rich layer. 
Bog Bean

Round-leaved Sundew with trapped fly

Sphagnums provide a rich tapestry of colour, and though the species list for flowering plants is not vast is made up for in variety and colour.  Many were only just reaching the point of flowering, Bog Asphodel and Sundews budding and almost out.  The Bog Cotton is being gradually teased from the bud and floating or streaking in the wind to find a new position to set down roots.  Butterwort and the sundews (Round leaved and Long leaved) await unsuspecting midges or even a larger fly to get stuck to their sticky and dew tipped leaves, which gradually digest the insect absorbing the nitrogen released a nutrient not available in the peat where there is no contact with the soil and rock substrate.

Dubh Loch with Bog Bean
Bog Bean
Water Lily

The jewels in the bog are the little Dubh Lochs, often set at the top of the rises and providing permanent water for Bog Bean and water lilies, and midges, that are food for dragonflies (Four-spotted chasers, Golden-ringed Dragonflies and damselflies), Dunlin and other waders like Redshank and Lapwing which have moved off the dry farmland in search of soft water logged ground for insects.

The rest of the bog is scattered with pink Heath Spotted orchid and every couple of hundred metres Skylark ascend to the sky singing their little hearts out a joy to the ear.

Traversing the terrain is hard going for a biped and wings would be so much easier but the little gems are worth the effort and the workout keeps the body in trim, I scoff at the app on my phone which has tracked my passage and tells me I have exerted merely a couple of hundred calories for the days exhaustion!