Saturday 30 April 2016

Working those angles

Day 3 of my inadvertent 'Feed a Finch' campaign...

There's 6 Linnets in the wildlife triangle now, and probably considerably less than 120g of wild flower seed. I'm thinking that perhaps that wasn't £8 well spent.

Looking on the bright side, I hear snatches of Linnet song every so often, and at quite close quarters.

Now that I think about it, it's 3 years and 600 miles since we stopped putting out food for the birds in Milton Keynes (so as to wean them off their dependence upon us before our departure northwards). And I used to whinge about paying £20 for a 12.5kg bag of sunflower hearts... seems like a bargain now!

High vole-tage

In a possibly serendipitous moment, scientists at Cern in Switzerland may have hit upon the solution to two separate problems here in Orkney.

Apparently, whilst colliding a small mustelid with a high voltage cable, LHC boffins have discovered statistically significant evidence for the total annihilation of the former, but not the latter.

Pardon my vivid imagination for the conflating thought that the much-anticipated interconnector cable from Orkney to the Scottish mainland would have a part to play in stoat eradication. Combining the funding for renewables and ecological protection for the greater good? It is indeed a fleeting thought, whose graviton-like existence has yet to be proved.

Friday 29 April 2016

Pythagoras' theorem

A small section of our garden is known as the Wildlife Triangle. It isn't full of snakes with slide rules, nor koalas with calculators, there's no square hippos' nose and not so much as even a log table (sorry). It is just a triangular bit of ground, about 50m², that we pretty much leave to let Nature take its course.

In reality, it is full of dochans, thistles and nettles, which are left over the Winter to provide a bit of shelter for any creature desperate enough to need it.

Last weekend, I gave the triangle its annual mowing, gradually reducing the height of the mower blades until bare patches of soil were visible. Yesterday evening, in the calm just before sunset, I nipped out to scarify the area with a grass rake, removing any dead grass and breaking up the top surface of the soil.

Then, in a change to the advertised programme, I broadcast 100g of wild flower seed (cornfield annuals) and 20g of seed from flowers which are useful to pollinators and beneficial insects. As the light faded, I tromped up and down the plot, each footstep touching the previous one, to ensure that there was a good contact between the seeds and the soil.

Today, I suspect that the local pair of Linnets that frequent our garden must be feeling like they have won the lottery, what with so much free food just laying on the ground, ready to be hoovered up by a hungry finch or two.

In time, I hope that the biodiversity of the triangle will increase to greater than the current four species (dochan, thistle, nettle, Linnet), but I wouldn't bet on it.

On the plus side, whilst working in the West Mainland this morning, I heard my first Willow Warbler of the year. So, despite yesterday's snow, this phenological sound bite does make me feel that Spring has properly arrived.

Tuesday 26 April 2016

Question time, part 4

Having published the initial replies to my stoat questions, I emailed a link to the blogpost to all the candidates, including a reminder for those who had yet to reply. As you can see, I am trying to present as level a playing field as possible and keeping everyone in the loop.

That action prompted another reply, this time from the SNP candidate, again reproduced in full below:

Hello, Graeme
Thank you for your questions and apologies again that the email landed in my Spam folder!

As you may know, part of my job as Director of the UHI Centre for Nordic Studies involves training STGA Green Badge Tourist Guides for both Orkney and North Highlands so I am very aware of the importance of tourism to the economy here. Having written papers on cultural and environmental tourism, I can certainly agree with the significance you place on wildlife for tourists. People do not come to Orkney to lie on beaches - they come for the unique history, archaeology, cultural heritage (tangible and intangible) and fascinating wildlife which has in many cases evolved in an unusual way. You are the wildlife expert so please do keep me right but I cannot think of any other archipelago that has island specific mouse varieties, for example!

We have a finely balanced and unusual ecosystem which susbstantially lacks mammalian predators and the introduction of stoats, who do not really have natural predators here and who are noted for their voracity and productivity, is clearly a serious issue which should be resolved as soon as possible. The consumption of bird's eggs and fledglings, if not halted, will be a major threat to the continuation of many bird species, and the depredations on the Orkney Vole will affect the food chain and cause severe problems for predators such as hen harriers and owls. The stoats are becoming very widespread, as numerous sightings confirm - I saw one cross the road in Costa while campaigning last week - which indicates a large population. I am in no doubt that this is a serious issue that will adversely affect Orkney's tourism product and thus the economy.
I would like to see up to date research done now on the actual effects the stoats are having on the ecosystem so that a clear case for funding can be made to the Scottish Government as soon as possible. It may even be possible to access the Community Empowerment Fund for the eradication programme. It is always good to identify a pot of funding in order to speed up the funding process. What you need is an SNP MSP making a strong case for this and working directly with the Scottish Government to bring this about!

I hopw this answers your questions and do not hesitate to contact me with any further queries.
Best wishes

So, four opinions in the bag, one to go...

If there are no more replies by the weekend, I'll wind down the thread with a summary of the comments as I see them, and allow a bit of time for cogitation before Polling Day (5th May).

Saturday 23 April 2016

Good things come in small packages

For an ostensibly wildlife blog, this post will push the boundaries of tenuousness (I so wanted to write 'tenuosity, but apparently not).

Today, the postman delivered two packages, which was nice as I was only expecting one. The much-anticipated parcel was from Emorsgate Seeds, bringing 100g of wild flower potentiality to this windswept isle. That's enough for 50 square metres. Yay! The second box was a complete mystery. It had my name on it, but I hadn't ordered anything else online. How very odd.

Our Lass was out, so I couldn't ask her if she knew anything about it.

It was a small box, not very heavy, but laden with much intrigue. I stared at it for a lot longer than was strictly necessary, but having discounted the possibility of a letter bomb campaign from some extremely right wing English language movement who objected to my careless use of unknown words, I opened it.

Inside were a further two smaller boxes...

Oh be still, my beating heart!

Further investigation revealed a pair of cufflinks in each box. Someone knew I was a little light in the wrist adornment department. Not any more!

When Our Lass returned, she was as baffled as I was (so, not a love token from the girl of my dreams, then. Hmmm). Puzzled, but in a good way, I resorted to Whatsapp to quiz the Two Ones about the mystery.

Question time, part 3

Last weekend, I posed some questions to the local candidates for the Orkney constituency in the upcoming Scottish Parliament elections. I was able to obtain email addresses for four of the candidates (from a news media source, so hopefully correct!) and a postal address for the fifth one, courtesy of the published electoral agent information on the Orkney Islands Council website. At worst case, I reckoned that the emails would be picked up on Monday morning and the snail mail perhaps Tuesday morning, so no candidate would be unduly disadvantaged in response time.

To recap, here are the questions:

1. In your opinion, how much of a threat to Orkney's wildlife is posed by the presence of stoats?

2. In your opinion, how much of a threat to Orkney's tourism industry is posed by the loss of such iconic species as Orkney vole, Hen harrier and Short-eared owl?

3. Should Scottish Government funding be made available to SNH now (or soon in the next parliament) to implement the full stoat eradication programme immediately?

4. If not, why not?

Currently, as I type this, I have had three responses, including one from the letter which had to go the slow way, so top marks to the Post Office for some slick work.

Here, as promised, are the responses, so far, in the order that they were received...

Dear Graeme

Thanks very much for your detailed email in relation to the threat of stoats and the questions you pose at the end.  

As you may be aware, this is an issue in which I have taken a close interest over the last few years, since the appearance of stoats in the county was first noted.  I have worked closely with the field club, RSPB and SNH over that time, taking the opportunity to raise concerns with SNH and Ministers at various points.

My most recent meeting with SNH came on the back of concerns at what appeared to be a lack of communication with local stakeholders and a fear about budget resources being allocated to the task of trapping and eradication.  The meeting was attended by RSPB representatives and others involved in the trapping programme to date. My impression was that it had proved useful in identifying areas for improvement and obtaining commitments from SNH in those regards. There remained concerns about the adequacy of budgets, though some of this was tied up in the uncertainty of making applications to LIFE and other such programmes.  There also appeared to be some question as to what an adequate budget might be.

In answer to your specific questions, I'd respond as follows:

1.In your opinion, how much of a threat to Orkney's wildlife is posed by the presence of stoats?  I'm not sure I'm best placed to quantify this, but the expert advice seems fairly clear about the seriousness of the potential threat posed. It is all the more disappointing, therefore, that so much time has now passed since the first sightings were made and, as you say, I think SNH now accept that mistakes were made, possibly leading to opportunities being missed to address the problem at an earlier stage.

2. In your opinion, how much of a threat to Orkney's tourism industry is posed by the loss of such iconic species as Orkney vole, Hen harrier and Short-eared owl?  Again I am not best placed to put a figure on this, but I am in absolutely no doubt about the importance of Orkney's bird and wildlife to the success of our local tourism industry.  Some of it may be based on specific species, though I rather suspect that it is the breadth and range of species that proves most attractive to visitors.  In passing, I would note that it is also a factor in people choosing to live and work in Orkney, something that is crucial with regards to population retention in often fragile communities. 
3. Should Scottish Government funding be made available to SNH now (or soon in the next parliament) to implement the full stoat eradication programme immediately?  I think Scottish Government funding should be made available, though from the discussions I have taken part in, I do not think that it can realistically be met solely from that source.  Other programmes of funding do exist, and there seems to be optimism that these can provide some of the support needed.  At the same time, it would be important to understand what the impact is likely to be on other parts of the budget and the work being undertaken by SNH.  I recall from my involvement in parliament's consideration of the 'non-native species' parts of the Wildlife and Natural Environment Bill (now Act) how important prevention and early remedial action are, but also how unbelievably expensive eradication programmes can become in a relatively short space of time.  

4. If not, why not?  I think I've tried to address this in the answer above.
I hope this response is of some assistance, but do please let me know if you have any further questions or points you wish to make.  Meantime, thank you again for taking the time and trouble to get in touch and for setting out your concerns in such detail.  Rest assured, if re-elected on 5th May, as I have already made clear to SNH, RSPB and others involved in this issue, I am determined to remain closely involved in trying to find a solution.

Kind regards, Liam

Liam McArthur
Scottish Liberal Democrat Candidate for Orkney

Dear Graeme

Thanks for writing, and I genuinely do mean that. I appreciate you telling me all about the intricacies and nuances of not only the primary issue of the threat that the non-native predator poses to already vulnerable and in some cases extremely rare species of wildlife on some of the islands, but also pointing out some of the historical measures and funding issues surrounding addressing this real problem effectively.

I want to make it quite clear that it is you, not I, who is the authority on this, and consequently will make no secret of the fact that I am quite prepared to defer to your knowledge and experience on this matter.

This is important, because given that you are the only person who has drawn my attention to this, I have no agenda in defending any previous measures taken to address the issue by any organisation, or the political and/or funding issues behind the strategy (or lack of strategy) to address the issue now.

So, in response to your questions, I will state my position as honestly and as ably as I can.

You present an extremely authoritative and detailed case for the real danger the presence of the stoat poses to Orkney's wildlife. 

My response would therefore be that:

  •  A significant, clear and present danger and threat to the sustainability and protection of Orkney's wildlife is caused by the presence of the stoat.

  • The tourist industry could potentially suffer significantly with the loss of iconic species as Orkney vole, Hen harrier and Short-eared owl given that there is a whole "Wildlife Tourism" to Orkney whose primary, if not sole interest in visiting Orkney is the viewing and listening of these species in their natural habitat.

  • I would support the advice and guidance of experts in this field, to inform the next Scottish Government towards addressing and finding a satisfactory resolution to this issue. I would strongly advocate this included the provision of adequate funding to ensure the matter is finally addressed properly and to everyone's satisfaction.

I hope my honest responses meet with your approval.

Yours sincerely


Gerry McGarvey

Scottish Labour Candidate for Orkney, May 2016

In response to your questions, i'd first like to say that I believe the persons involved in matters are generally the best placed to come up with solutions to them, that being said... According to your letter: "the most likely scenario would be a catastrophic decline in the vole population" which "would have disastrous consequences" for birds and other predators. I have also had a quick glance online for further information so the answer to your questions are as follows:
1.  There is a great threat to the Orkney wildlife which needs to be addressed.
2. The loss of iconic species would be extremely detrimental to the Orkney tourism industry.
3. I'm personally of the opinion that the issue should be dealt with extreme urgency, given the information I have been presented with.
I will say that i'm personally a pacifist and try my best not to harm any creature, so any decision on eradication is entirely up to yourselves.
I hope this is satisfactory to you and look forward to any more questions you have...
Paul Dawson
Independent Candidate for Orkney 

If any other correspondence arrives from the candidate that have so far failed to respond, then they too will have their responses published here.

Then, after a cogitative pause to consider the candidates' input, I shall offer up a few thoughts on the whole experience.

Tuesday 19 April 2016

Question time, part 2

Two responses to my letter so far, which is rather prompt, I'd say, bearing in mind the 'niche' topic as far as the general public is concerned. Am I being generous here and assuming that a sample of MSP candidates will have much the same interests as a cross section of the populace?

Any road, we'll see if anyone else replies and then a collated set of responses will be published here.

Sunday 17 April 2016

Question time

With voting due to take place in just over a fortnight for seats in the next Scottish Parliament, the doorstep at Tense Towers has remained conspicuously candidate-free of any Orkney hopefuls. Mind on, much literature has been brought by the postman, but these circulars only deal with the issues which the candidates think will bring them the best chance of success on polling day. Perhaps not so surprisingly, these issues aren't at the top of the Tense agenda.

In an effort to counter this unintended slight, I have written to the five candidates for the Orkney seat (but not the folk on the regional list) with a few questions on a topic close to my heart, to find out what their respective views are and to help me make up my mind as to which way to vote. 

Here's the letter sent to each candidate for the local constituency:

Dear ,

In order to help me decide upon my voting preferences, I am writing to you and the other four candidates standing for election as the Orkney MSP.

Whilst hustings and door-to-door campaigning are all very well, not every issue of concern to Orcadian voters will be discussed, so I would appreciate a reply to the questions that are of most importance from my point of view.

Tourism plays an important part in the local economy (£31 million in 2013, according to VisitScotland), with many visitors coming to Orkney to watch and photograph our stunning wildlife. The floral and faunal assemblage in the archipelago is very special, with endemic species (found nowhere else in the world) and important breeding colonies of species under threat (see the RPSB's Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern 4 published in 2015).

As I would hope you already know, the Orkney vole, Microtus agrestis orcadensis, endemic to seven of the islands in Orkney, is under threat from an introduced, non-native predator, the Stoat. In mainland UK, stoats are not that much of a problem as there are larger predators controlling their numbers, but in Orkney this is not the case, allowing the population to increase and expand exponentially since the first sightings in 2010. A report, commissioned last year by SNH, into the probable impacts of this situation concluded that the most likely scenario would be a catastrophic decline in the vole population, from which it would not recover.

The voles also support breeding populations of several raptors, two of which (Hen harrier and Short-eared owl) are featured in the RSPB's Red and Amber lists of conservation concern. In fact, Orkney is a shining light as far as Hen harriers are concerned, due to raptor persecution in England and mainland Scotland. So, loss of the Orkney vole would have disastrous consequences for these birds.

Worse still, being a successful predator, the stoat is not limited to one food source. Once the voles have been wiped out, other wildlife will be threatened, principally the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds such as Curlew, Lapwing, Ringed plover, Hen harrier (again!), Arctic skua and Skylark (all on the Red List), as well as Shelduck, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Snipe, Great skua, Arctic tern, Short-eared owl (again!) and Meadow pipit (all on the Amber List).

I am sure that you would agree, this is a large proportion of the visible and audible wildlife that makes Orkney such a fantastic place to live, work and visit.

By its own admission, SNH was slow to react effectively to this problem but, towards the end of last year, two project officers arrived in Orkney to reinvigorate a previously-unsuccessful volunteer trapping scheme. With the long term objective being to protect Orkney's wildlife with a fully-funded total eradication of stoats, SNH see the volunteer programme as a means of collecting data and evaluating the merits of trapping techniques, whilst acknowledging that it will only ever scratch the surface of the problem. The hope is obviously to secure sufficient funding to allow the full eradication programme to take place from 2017/18 onwards.

However, this week, volunteers received the news that one of the posts, that of the dedicated full-time volunteer co-ordinator, is no longer funded, with the point of contact for volunteers now being an SNH member of staff in Shetland. Hardly the most encouraging piece of news in the funding saga, eh?

So, my questions to you are:

1.In your opinion, how much of a threat to Orkney's wildlife is posed by the presence of stoats?

2. In your opinion, how much of a threat to Orkney's tourism industry is posed by the loss of such iconic species as Orkney vole, Hen harrier and Short-eared owl?

3. Should Scottish Government funding be made available to SNH now (or very soon in the next parliament) to implement the full stoat eradication programme immediately?

4. If not, why not?

I look forward to hearing your reply and will, along with this letter, publish it on my personal blog so as to also help other folk decide upon their voting preferences.

Kind Regards,

Graeme Walker

As indicated above, any replies received will be published on Imperfect and Tense.

Saturday 16 April 2016

The number of the post

Imperfect and Tense... it's occasionally a horror story. And I've committed some terrible offences to the English language during this past seven years. There's been puns that have left women distraught and weeping, tortuous jokes that have sent grown men running from the room and innuendo that needed a watershed all of its own. It's been scary stuff.

I can almost hear you thinking "Where's this going?"

Well, folks, this is blogpost number 666. Bring out your old bits of loose string and be frayed, be very a-frayed.

To lighten the mood and avoid anything too ghoulish, let's talk about today's weather. The biting northerly wind is very bitey and windy, the snow squalls are very squally and the sunny periods are very sunny. In summary, today's weather is... Very.

Don't have nightmares.

Friday 8 April 2016


About a month ago, I posted a blog that mentioned a World War 2 torpedo which had been found on the sea bed in Scapa Flow.

This week, a team from the Royal Navy were on hand to make the torpedo safe and recover any fragments for posterity.

Whilst not at home to witness the event, which is a source of great disappointment as I'm sure that it would have been visible from Tense Towers, I was at least able to watch footage of the 'making safe procedure' later in the day.

It made it to the BBC here, the weekly paper's website here and the website here.

As Second Born is wont to comment... "Boom!"

Thursday 7 April 2016

Legs and Co

Our Lass and I ventured south at the weekend, ostensibly to attend the 2nd Scottish Dragonfly Conference in Perth, but with plans to meet up with friends and relatives along the way as an added bonus.

We took the early boat across to mainland Scotland and had a leisurely drive southwards, stopping off in Helmsdale (tea and hot cross buns) and Tain (pitstop for a bunch of flowers). Y'know, I bet Formula 1 would be much more interesting if the drivers had to choose a bouquet during routine tyre stops.

"Hamilton's switched to the intermediates... that's a clever strategy. Er, hang on, he's chosen the chrysanthemums... oh dear."

After a lunch and a chat with friends near Inverness (plus the addition of Blue Tit and Coal Tit to my year list), we dawdled through the Cairngorms and arrived in Perth at about tea time.

Our evening meal was shared with family who had travelled up from Fife to meet us. The night was somewhat enlivened when we realised that our hotel was also the base for several teams competing in the Perth Ladies International Curling tour event.

The dragonfly conference also featured lots of damsels, as well as dragonflies!

In fact, the well-attended event was notable, at least to my mind, for the number of younger folk who were prepared to spend their day gettin' all odonatological with it. So many groups we know are populated by an ageing membership, with no new blood coming through to carry on the good work. It was heartening to see plenty of students and post graduates in attendance, which bodes well for the future, I hope.

Following the conference, we wandered into the centre of Perth for a bit of retail therapy and then found a lovely Italian restaurant, where we were able to share a bottle of wine (neither of us were driving, yay!) and an excellent meal.

The trip back north on Sunday was in unremitting rain. However, the day was brightened considerably with a few unexpected wildlife surprises. Firstly, as we scooted along the A9 near Dalwhinnie and as we drove past a small lochan not far from the carriageway, we spotted a male Smew. It took a few seconds to register what we'd seen, by which time we were well away up the road. Not having either bins or camera (I know, can you credit it?), there didn't seem much point in turning around.

Our second nature moment occurred at that well-frequented watering hole, Ralia Cafe. As we walked towards the building, I noticed half a dozen millipedes climbing up a wall. Honestly, you never see one for ages and then six turn up all at once.

The intervening days since our trip have been filled with work but, for the last few evenings, we have been able to watch a Short-eared Owl flying up and down in front of the house, hunting for voles along the grass verges of the road.

Spring is inexorably pushing north, bringing Summer migrants and warm-ish days. And in two months it will definitely be odo season.