In this light and on this evening: The John Muir Award

Well, went to see Editors last week. They were really very good, hence the song lyric bit of the title.

Now accepting that the project is, largely, finished yet hoping the project will never end…..this is one of the best things I’ve done. Getting to know a lovely place better as the months pass is the core idea of my John Muir Award project.   I’ve always lingered over the signs of seasonal change, but this project is making me look a wee bit closer at the woodland and shore between Balmaha and Milarrochy Bay, by Loch Lomond, and in so doing, enjoy it all the more.  Here is my plan for the four challenges in the award (discover, explore, conserve and share):  anyone looking at this can judge my progress for themselves.  My awareness of wild flowers in particular has gone from a low starting point to a not-quite-so-low point at present; I’ve begun to appreciate the level of detail needed to identify a plant. I still think it’s all beautiful.

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Wild Carrot Seed Head

With autumn in full swing, things have changed at all the points I’ve been photographing.  I see I need to go and visit again – most of my early October pictures  don’t look very autumnal at all. The strong winds the other day, the first of the autumn, bared some trees overnight.

Tracking the budding and coming into leaf of an oak tree was part of my project; I added my oak tree information to the national Track-a-Tree observations gathered by Edinburgh University and the Woodland Trust. Looking at the way the tree data are presented on the website gives a useful visual of the arrival of spring in 2015 – see it here. The map might need to be selected first – using the + button, choosing ‘google hybrid’ worked for me. Then choose ‘pedunculate oak’ for species and either ‘bud burst’ or ‘leaf’ for the event.  Then press the play symbol below the map to see when the event took place in different parts of the UK – my oak is the dot furthest NW.  Below is a montage of images of oak through the year so far.

OakAnd this is the the story of the Guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus) I’ve been following since early spring, it’s right by the West Highland Way path. Taking photos is about more than photography! I could download better images of every stage of the plant’s development, but being there, taking the pictures, remembering things makes it more meaningful, certainly more personal.

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This is the little island near Milarrochy Bay, photographed from April to October.  Just five images chosen to show change.

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As I write we’ve just changed the clocks, a reminder of the shortening  days to come.  I found this quote from John Muir about the earth’s rotation and its apparent immutability:

Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.  John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938), page 438.

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I’m looking forward to a day event about tree health next week, it seemed to follow naturally from my recent ploys and is organised for Woodland Trust Scotland volunteers (I am one of those as well).  It was a pleasure to be at Loch Katrine last week when the Minister came along to mark the designation of  Scotland’s (and the UK’s)  latest and largest National Nature ReserveThe Great Trossachs Forest. And it’s all within Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park.

Current reading: “Where do camels belong?” by Ken Thompson. The subtitle is: ‘The Story and Science of Invasive Species’.  I understand it’s quite controversial, but I’ve just begun reading it.  I’ve also been reading about the perception of landscape, preferences and the impact on behaviour. In one study in 2010, the authors investigate the links between ‘nature connectedness’ and happiness, concluding that strong connectedness to the natural world is linked to happiness; it could bring about happiness but the opposite may also be true. They indicate that environmental concern is not strongly linked to happiness: perhaps connectedness could ameliorate the negative impact of that concern on happiness.

They argue that closeness to nature could be an indicator of positive behaviour towards the environment; if that is the case, then supporting people to get closer to nature (e.g. more knowledge about and more enjoyment of  nature) could pay dividends for the natural world by positively influencing behaviour towards conservation.

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Misty autumn day at the little island near Arrochymore Point

The following is based on an item in a John Muir Award newsletter. Our values: they inform how we behave and react and they’re strongly connected to emotions; but they can change.  Our values and our attitudes to nature are linked. Nature experiences can have an effect on values; it is thought some experiences of landscape or learning something outdoors, for example, can make people more positive in their attitudes to others, more patient.  The impact of values held might explain why some messages – such as ‘leave no trace’ camping – don’t always get through.

Common Cause for Nature (see here for more info) put forward a map of values, showing that some of the value we hold can conflict. The downloadable Practitioner’s Guide “offers practical recommendations …… on how to ensure their work strengthens the values that motivate people to protect and enjoy nature.”  

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Encouraging people to enjoy, learn about and protect the natural world really interests me and I am sure that, as with many things West of Scotland, health and wellbeing is an important part of the mix. I came across a very readable paper: Health impacts of the John Muir Award (2008), Dr Richard Mitchell & Dr Rebecca Shaw, Public Health and Health Policy, University of Glasgow, published in partnership with John Muir Trust and Glasgow Centre for Population Health. Download it here.  These are parts of their summary conclusion:

“In summary, the John Muir Award has a demonstrable contribution to make to the health, education, environmental and inequalities policy agenda in Scotland.” and  “That the Award appeared to have most benefits for those from most deprived communities is highly significant. However, the study highlighted gross inequalities in experience of wild places before the Award experience, and that young people still perceive barriers to participating in outdoor activities after it.”   So, that’s a big JMA challenge for us all, then.

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 Beauty is before me

And beauty is behind me

Above and below me hovers the beautiful

I am surrounded by it

I am immersed in it

In my youth I am aware of it

And in old age I shall walk quietly

The beautiful trail.

From a Navajo benedictory chant describing the desert, as told to the class at a recent geology lecture; the little poem struck me as appropriate for ‘my’ trail, the lovely bit of the West Highland Way between Balmaha and Milarrochy Bay that I’ve been enjoying so much since spring –  and my seasonal change JMA project  – started .

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There’s a feeling I get..

I had to start with that old Zep line after hearing it (including ‘When I look to the west..’) said by friend T today!

Back at my John Muir Award, things may be drawing to a close – or maybe not.  I had committed to do this project from April to September and as I write it’s the 30th September.  However,  as the earth’s journey round the sun continues past the equinox I know the changes will keep on coming, although I’m not so sure I can commit as much time to my ‘seasons’ project now that the daylight hours are diminishing and other obligations are crowding in. I’d love to follow all my plants and special spots along the West Highland Way over the autumn and winter, so I expect I’ll try to do that while declaring the project complete for JMA purposes at some stage soon. The project has fitted in well with volunteering at the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. I would say it has changed the way I see some of my volunteering: while from a nature-connectedness viewpoint I’ve been exploring more detail, for volunteering, I’ve been more aware of the big picture, why certain tasks are being done, listening to the story of why we’re doing what we’re doing to fit into larger plans, for example, Wild Park 2020. I’ve not managed  everything in my plan, although the project  sort of took me along its own road.

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Nostalgia, wistfulness, just getting old(er)? I do get a feeling of anticipation when the mist takes a while to clear in the morning, when the leaves take on different colours – this from the person who complained that it was all very green during July and August!  – and when brambles are at last gatherable.  The first frost really is special as the smell of woodsmoke hangs in the air.

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Sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica) – September
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Northern Bedstraw ( Galium boreale)  – September

Still learning, adding new plants that I have photographed and identified – often with a great deal of help from patient friends – thanks!

I am planning another visit to my special JMA place between Balmaha and Milarrochy Bay next week (I hope) to see what wonders are on show, to take some photos and to visit my oak tree, even though the season for Track a Tree lies well in the past.

Today I took part in a session with trainers from Opal (Open Air Laboratories) and TCV. The Opal project is about Citizen Science and the training, arranged by Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, was brilliant, very interactive (oops! forgot to use that word in my evaluation) and a great way to learn.  We tried the Soils (and Earthworms) materials and also looked at Lichens (part of Air Quality materials) and Tree Health as well.  The resources are colourful and clear.  It was lovely to be encouraged today to personally relate to trees: something I’ve enjoyed lots of on my JMA project! And the session met my JMA criteria in supporting my own exploration and enjoyment of the natural world; of course, it offered ideas and materials for sharing with others in all sorts of contexts.

Today’s  presenter, Matt,  used the Hand, Heart, Head model (see below) to review our experience of the session: it’s a model used in the JMA materials as well and is based on the work of Patrick Geddesa thinker active across many realms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Credited variously with giving birth to town planning and eco-politics, to my mind, one of his major achievements was trying to get teachers and learners  out of subject silos, perhaps to get a better view!  As a former teacher myself, I can relate to an integrative approach that engages the ‘learning domains’ of participants through taking practical actionexploring their feelings and gaining understanding.  Geddes was a bit of a polymath and I like to think of him as a geographer (well, I would, wouldn’t I?), seeing the big picture and making a difference – promoting transformative learning.

Patrick Geddes HHH Model

The last time I looked at ‘my’ Guelder-rose (last weekend) on its sunny outcrop by the WHW, I was pleased to see that the berries were, at last, red.  Here is a photo from 12th August and one from 27th September:

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guelder rose

The Alder at Manse Bay that I’ve visited over the months (and I am so pleased to be able to use that expression!) is one of my favourites.  Here it is on 20th May and 3rd September:

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So, when you look at the tree, it’s all green, but I like the change from see-through to screening.

It looks like the shorter days, something I seem to go back to time and again, are making me think about endings more than beginnings: so far, pursuing the JMA has definitely helped me connect more explicitly and meaningfully with nature. The strong sense of place I’ve felt for a long time in relation to this beautiful area – its uniqueness, familiarity, ability to surprise and lead you in –  is probably rooted more in the larger landscape than in the smaller detail that makes it up and gives it new and changing life.   This growing season, I’ve been trying to learn as much as possible about the smaller, component parts of the natural world from the well informed people I am privileged to know.  Slowing down and looking, listening, learning  remains both the ultimate goal and also an achievement of my project on an ongoing basis!  And September has been sunny, hopefully in time to give we west of Scotland folks a boost of Vitamin D before the great darkness sets in.  Yep, this is sounding like an ending!

I’ve still to write a wee bit about values and the outdoors – or I should say, some explicit things about values and the outdoors, since I sincerely hope ‘values’ such as  accepting responsibility for the future (and thus the benefit of planning for it?),  choosing to try to conserve the natural world because it is a choice for  justice, fairness and health are part of my efforts most of the time.

There’s so many different worlds..

I know it should be ‘There are…” but it is a song lyric after all.

Since my last post here on my John Muir Award blog I’ve spent a brilliant week on a study tour/course in Slovakia, mostly seeing and thinking about the natural world.  The view from abroad wasn’t in my plan, but inevitably the trip has had an impact.  I had wanted to look at values in connection with the outdoors as part of the JMA: the people speaking with us in Slovakia talked values as they described the biodiversity of their country and the various threats and challenges being faced, in much the same way as the lovely folks at Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park do. The trip was fascinating, a window on a different world in a way that a holiday sometimes is not. We had input about bark beetles; wolf, bears and lynx; fabulous flora and lots more. We saw wolf scat, bear scat and footprints, a bat netting event, some beautiful scenery and we met some lovely people. Below: a good crop of sloes on the blackthorn at Slovensky Raj National Park.

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Several of Slovakia’s National Parks were established as long ago as the UK’s first ones, although, as in the UK, others have been designated over the years. Access arrangements are certainly different from those in Scotland.  As in other countries, Slovakian National Parks are zoned, with the highest protection  and the most limited access accorded to areas only a little or not at all affected by humans.  The National Parks have a core and a buffer zone – sometimes the buffer zone is a small fringe round the NP while in others it is a large area between an intensively used landscape and the core NP.

This is a map of one of the Slovakian NPs we visited, the smallest one: Pieniny NP. It is 37.5 km2 in area (core)  – compare with Loch Lomond & Trossachs NP 1863 km2, and Cairngorm NP 4528 km2. The green outline marks the Core of the NP, the buffer  zone is very much larger; northward is the Polish border and the ‘matching’ NP there. Zone D is the area for settlement and development.  Zone A attracts the highest level of protection and includes the Slovak side of the spectacular incised meanders of the Dunajec River which forms the border with Poland for a distance.

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This next map shows the Core of Pieniny NP and its buffer zone – in this case the buffer is large compared to core, though in each NP that relationship is different.

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Maps from a publication by Pieniny NP.

The business of access is interesting.  Here is some Slovakian signage, pretty direct with no explanation or supporting rationale, the first one below is from the Tatras National Park.

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It’s about no camping, no hiking and no bottles and cans or eating and drinking,    I think.  It was by the start of a forest track and not far from the start of a marked footpath. Sorry, not a good picture.

This one below is different again: at Slovensky Kras NP, no picking plants, no fires, no litter and no camping/caravanning. The first and third red crosses seem to have faded to yellow and were hard to photograph! Maybe someone had rubbed them out? I also wonder if there was a 5th prohibition that has been removed/has come off?

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The one below is perhaps the definitive Slovakian NP access info: again, it’s from Slovensky Kras NP and includes a lovely pictogram for ‘no walking outwith the path’ among the other messages: no camping, no litter, no fires, and no netting butterflies.

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This really made me think! And yet there was a high expectation of compliance.  The designation of NPs began in communist times (though protected areas predate that era) and as I understand it it was easier before the ‘change’ to designate, protect and keep people out of  land or at least keep them to the tourist paths. I know from other countries that walkers are expected to stay on the paths, so likely it’s we who are a bit different!

Information/interpretation panels in the Slovakian NPs are colourful, nicely illustrated if a bit fact-heavy: giving information rather than aiming to  ‘provoke (curiosity), relate (to everyday experiences of audience) and reveal (a memorable message)‘ as in the classic approach  -see this link to some introductory information about interpretation.   This is a link to SNH advice on producing interpretive panels; and here is an example (the English language version, always alongside the Slovak!) of  a bit of the text on a panel in  a Slovakian NP.  OK, I know there are lots of examples like this in our country too!

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What’s in a name?

One of the keys to comparing these Slovakian National Parks with our own is that one of the highest degrees of protection in the country is afforded within Slovakian NPs which are IUCN category II (National Parks, predominantly for the protection of ecosystems and themselves protected by a surrounding buffer area) while in our case in Scotland, our most protected areas include some of our SSSIs.  Our ‘National Parks’ are ‘managed landscapes’ and so are IUCN category V (a protected landscape/seascape);  Rowardennan Woods SSSI is category IV (an area for habitat or species management), according to data published by IUCN.  State ownership in Slovakian NP core areas is strong, while private (including FCS) ownership is the norm in Scotland’s NPs.  UK protected areas have their management widely shared among SNH and our well developed ‘third sector’, so the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB, NTS, JMT  and so on may manage some very sensitive areas e.g. Insh Marshes NNR is managed by RSPB.  I think this is different from Slovakia, but it’s hard to be sure.  In Slovakia, the gorge we walked up within Slovensky Raj NP, Suchá Belá, is IUCN category Ia (protected from all but very light human use) – judge for yourself from the pictures here and on-line of this well visited and definitely managed ‘corridor’ through the limestone landscape of the NP.

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Slovakia is very beautiful and was a great place to visit for nature, wildlife and the outdoors. I’d love to go back.

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Meanwhile, back in Scotland it’s the autumnal equinox; a little chill is in the air, a little gold is in the trees.

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You will keep forever, I’ll bury you like treasure

And so to bogs… Over the years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time leaping from tussock to tussock, squelching through wet  springy moss  and sometimes up to knees or thighs in glaur – all while passing through our mountain bogs.  When making my way to or from a hill top, I haven’t always observed what’s growing in the boggy bits – you know what it looks like and what it means (getting wet!) but you take it for granted. A visit with friend L to the area just above the Cashel Native Forest on Loch Lomondside a couple of weeks ago gave me a chance to look at some special features of a mountain bog habitat in light of my current John Muir Award efforts to learn more about the natural world – my plan can be seen here.  It was beautiful – the dry air vibrated with various buzzings, with the calls and flight of meadow pipits and the more distant ‘seeps’ of buzzards. We saw a ringlet butterfly and a dark green fritillary as well – thanks to iSpotters for supporting me towards clearer ID!  The plants were amazing in mid July, we saw bog pondweed, bog asphodel, what I used to call bog cotton  (Hare’s-Tail Cottongrass), bog myrtle, heath milkwort and common lousewort (in that order, below). IMG_2213 bog asphodel Narthecium ossifragum IMG_2219 IMG_2225 IMG_2212 IMG_2210 And we saw a lot of moss. bog- moss Sphagnum ssp IMG_2215 The moss is amazing stuff: some mosses can hold many times their own weight in water, they’re like sponges.  Dead sphagnum moss can accumulate slowly in an acidic environment where the organisms that normally break down dead plant material cannot live, and it forms layers of peat which can be several metres deep. Many interesting flora and fauna can be found on and above the peatlands, including plants which are carnivorous (they trap flies on sticky hairs of the leaves) to provide additional nutrition needed in the nutrient-poor peaty soils.  I’ve not got a photo of a sundew, but we took some of Common butterwort on Mull around midsummer: they’re not very good photos, I am afraid! DSC_0977 butterwort in flower Mull hill

Peat bogs currently** act as carbon sinks, so we really need to look after them; and by storing large amounts of water, bogs can slow down run-off and help limit flooding after heavy rain events:  both functions are about the cheery topic of climate change and increasing the resilience of natural systems in the face of this challenge. Reversing the effects of previous drainage projects, ending commercial peat extraction and limiting – and making good –  the extra erosion caused by overgrazing are all ways to safeguard this useful stuff.  See  here for news of collaboration to restore peatlands among SRUC, LLTNP and Luss Estates. Objects and indeed bodies can be really well preserved in peat: see here for Ötzi’s story, he is one of several famous European bog bodies.

“Our mountain bogs” is one of the 5 ‘wild challenges‘ in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park’s Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP),  Wild Park 2020, where it sets out projects to conserve the biodiversity. BAPs had their origins when some countries committed to take action on threatened species and habitats in the wake of an international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), with the UK signing at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

There is a European framework for species and habitat conservation, UK – wide and Scottish protection / conservation legislation and also a Scottish set of priorities responding to the UN CBD ‘Aichi’ biodiversity targets for 2020 (named for the area in Japan where the targets were set during the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity – UN CBD). The ‘Aichi’ targets are short and easy to read: see this webpage  for the list of 2o established in 2010.  All of the planning around BAPs recognises the positive impact on economies and on wellbeing of conserving our natural capital for the future. Naturally, though, there is concern in some less developed countries about the worldwide importance placed on biodiversity, perhaps, as it might be seen,  above food and industrial development.  

In Scottish terms, earlier documents on biodiversity gave rise to the so-called ‘biodiversity duty’, a legal duty on public bodies (e.g. local authority, health board); that could be seen as bolstering the efforts set out within the important BAPs.  The recent document 2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity (published in 2013) ( find it here),  states that the Aichi targets of UN CBD 2010, and the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2020 (published 2011)  “call for a step change in efforts to halt the loss of biodiversity and to restore the essential services that a healthy natural environment provides”  because previous targets set for 2010 were not met.  A further Scottish Government document, “Scotland’s Biodiversity: A Route Map to 2020”  (available herewas published in June 2015 and describes priority projects to meet the targets within ‘Six Big Steps for Nature’ (e.g. Step 1: Ecosystems Restoration; priority project: restoration of peatlands).  It’s within this context too that we might consider reintroductions of species: after all, restoring the ecosystem and ecosystem services can mean restoring its former members!  Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has a section on its website about reintroductions: here, including minutes of meetings of the National Species Reintroduction Forum.

** Update: But for how long?  See news from RSPB regarding recent research:  climate change threat to uplands

I found reading around BAPs really interesting  – I only hope my extreme summary is reasonably accurate!  But back to my special John Muir Award area by Loch Lomond: the NP’s other ‘wild challenges‘  are red squirrels; invasive non-native species (INNS); black grouse; and woodland habitat network.   It was nice to think about my own engagements with some of these NP conservation causes: I am a certificated sprayer of INNS, and have spent some volunteer days removing rhodies by the lever and mulch method (does your back in!); this year I’ve been fortunate to see lots of black grouse (without getting up early!), all of them males strutting their stuff/white tails; red squirrel are quite easily seen in local forests; and my ‘Track a Tree’ project as part of my John Muir Award efforts involves getting up close and personal with my oak tree and its surroundings as the seasons pass – our woodland habitat network!  However, one of the things I increasingly think about is what stage in habitat succession we choose to conserve – and why! IMG_2206