Bee blindness

I’ve been thinking for ages about writing some articles about ecology and Christianity. But I’ve been so worried that the material about ecology for Christians would seem superstitious to the ecologists, and the material about Christianity for ecologists would seem heretical to the Christians, that I haven’t dared publish any of it. But all I really want to do is get people thinking, so on the basis that the most thought-provoking sermon is the awful, erroneous sermon, here is one about bees and Jesus. Follow the links for more information or source material.

Jesus, carpenter turned edgy stand-up comedian, told a silly story about a man with a plank in his eye, who patronisingly offered to take the speck of sawdust out of his colleague’s eye, despite the fact that he couldn’t see anything because he had a fucking great plank in his eye. (Luke 6.41-2)

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past year, ever since I read Dave Goulson’s book A Sting in the Tale in hospital, where as well as being cured of my physical ills I was enjoying an intense digital detox as my phone was broken and there was no WiFi. But what does Goulson’s tale of bumblebee adventures have to do with Jesus’s plank-man?

I’d always thought the pollinator crisis was about honeybee decline.

I didn’t know, in hospital, that a few weeks later I would begin working for Buglife, where my adventures with bumblebees would redouble. Not professionally, you understand: I’m only qualified to shuffle information and talk to people. But as soon as spring arrived, we would go out at lunchtime and start identifying things; and one of the easiest things to identify was bumblebees.

There are only six common sorts, and they wear distinctive strips like rugby players.

Red tailed bumblebees (all black with a red tail) and Common carder bees (brown or gingery) are easy. Buff tailed, White tailed and Garden look more similar and I never reliably distinguished them with their yellow-and-black stripes and a whitish tail. It took me a while to spot an Early bumblebee, black-and-yellow but with a gingery tail, and it felt like completing a collection when I did. And all before Pokemon Go even arrived.

20160915_150849
Common carder bee on scabious, in the wildflower garden of Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh

There’s actually a seventh common sort now, the Tree bumblebee, with a ginger thorax, black abdomen and white tail, which has moved in rapidly from Europe. Whereas most bumblebees nest in burrows under grassy tussocks, like rabbits, Tree bumblebees nest high up, like Blue tits – in fact they often take over their nest boxes.

Plank-man wasn’t the only story Jesus told about not being able to see. You know the phrase, “the blind leading the blind”? That’s one of his. The context was his friends warning him that he was starting to annoy influential people, to which he replied, “Leave them, they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Matt 15.14)

I never said Jesus’ sense of humour was tasteful.

Bees have different roles within the colony, and I also learned a bit about distinguishing queens, workers and males. I knew before that queens are the huge ones, but I didn’t know workers could be tiny, tinier than you could imagine a bumblebee to be, little fluff-balls. Nor did I know that males generally have yellow faces, and never sting, although unlike my colleague Scott I haven’t yet been quite brave enough to test this by holding a yellow-faced bee for its portrait.

20160808_180631

But these seven bumblebees are just the start. There are 24 UK species of bumblebee, and once you know the common ones you can tell when you’ve seen something more interesting. I spent a long time watching this Field cuckoo bumblebee and wondering what it was before another colleague Suzie enlightened me. Cuckoo bumblebees sneak into bumblebee nests, kill the queen, and let the workers raise their young.

Field cuckoo bumblebee
Field cuckoo bumblebee

Jesus was actually quite obsessed with blindness, so it’s not surprising there are so many stories of him healing physically blind people. Blindness is his central accusation against the religious teachers of the day, as in this extract from a tremendous rant:

“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, if anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple is bound by his oath. You fools! Which is greater, the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? Woe to you, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin – but you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23.16-24)

I never said Jesus was restrained.

But these 24 bumblebees are still just the start. Pollinating insects include over 200 species of solitary bees, over 250 species of wasp, as well as flies, butterflies, moths and even beetles. There are reckoned to be 1500 species of wild pollinator in the UK.

And yet, how many times when we are talking or thinking about “pollinators” do we say, or mean, “honeybees”? British honeybees are not 1,500 species, they are one species, Apis mellifera.

It was domesticated perhaps 10,000 years ago, and is not a natural part of our ecosystem, any more than an Aberdeen terrier, Herdwick sheep or Orpington chicken. Equating honeybees with pollinators is as if you were trying to tell someone about the diversity of UK mammals: Wildcat, Red squirrel, Badger, Otter, Harvest-mouse, Pine marten, Water vole, Weasel, Dormouse — but they insist on referring to them all as “sheep”. Except it’s 15 times worse because there are only 101 species of mammal in the UK, not 1,500.

Jesus didn’t make up this stuff about blindness. He got it from reading the prophets, like Isaiah, raging about the lazy, corrupt religious teachers of his day:

Israel’s watchmen are blind,
they all lack knowledge;
They are dogs with mighty appetites;
they never have enough.
They are shepherds who lack understanding;
they seek their own gain. (Isaiah 56.9-11)

I never said Jesus was original.

But why does this matter? It’s very interesting, of course, to know about Common carder bees and how to distinguish groups of hoverflies by the loops on their wings, but is this not somewhat arcane knowledge, like my arcane ability to recite that passage from Isaiah about human and environmental restoration:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. (Isaiah 35.5-7)

eristalis
Eristalis hoverflies mimic bumblebees, and are distinguished by the prominent loop in the central vein near the tip of their wings.

It matters because we rely on pollinators to produce chocolate, strawberries, apples, tomatoes, carrots, cotton, peanuts, and much more: one in three mouthfuls of food, in fact.

And pollinators are under threat, from climate change, development (building houses and road etc), but most of all from intensive farming practices.

And when nature is under threat, its best defence is found in diversity. One pollinator which nests in sandy banks might go extinct, but one which nests in grass might survive. One whose grubs feed on thyme might go extinct, but one which feeds on dead-nettles might survive. A disease might wipe out one species, while another might be resistant. Nature is so complex, so full of factors we barely understand, that to rely on one species, honeybees, which did not even evolve to live here, is wilfully to blind ourselves to our own ignorance of what it is we are relying on.

We think we can march in and fix nature: “bees are declining! Start beekeeping! Hey we could be like Christian monks in the olden days!” when really we should be stepping back to let nature recover in its diversity. Over one summer, a 40-hive apiary will take enough pollen to feed four million wild bees; or in other words, four million wild bees, in all their resilient diversity, will starve: and if a disease were to come along that wiped out the honeybees, so will we.

The best blindness story about Jesus is the one where he heals a blind man, then the sceptical religious teachers come and investigate the healing. The blind man persists in calling a spade a spade, and the teachers insist he must be mistaken. It’s worth reading the whole story, (John 9) but it ends up with the teachers saying to Jesus, “What? Are we blind too?”, and Jesus saying, being blind does not make you culpable; but claiming you can see when you can’t makes you guilty.

Being a Christian does not mean being like Christian monks in the olden days: it means imitating Jesus.

The first step to imitating Jesus — along with forgetting about being tasteful, restrained, or original, and keeping your sense of humour — is taking the plank out of your eye: the plank of introverted obsession with human-made objects and human-made concerns and conventions, with which we have blocked out all knowledge of the rest of life.

The second step to imitating Jesus is to be a healer. I set up the Wild Reekie group to ‘discover and restore nature in Edinburgh’, which with the help of a little social media magic has resulted in over 150 people, mostly less knowledgeable about ecology than me (which isn’t saying much) coming to events to learn about it. We had lots of events over the summer looking at pollinators, and I had lots of fun passing on my newfound knowledge of the seven common bumblebees. But my favourite conversation was with the lady who wasn’t sure whether what she was looking at was a bee or a wasp.

“That one’s a hoverfly”, I said.
“Oh, so not very interesting,” she said.
“Not at all,” I said, “There are hundreds of species of hoverfly, they’re really interesting and very beautiful.”
“Oh — so they are interesting then!”

I don’t think she’ll ever see a hoverfly — or fail to see one — the same way again.

I didn’t even know how many species of hoverfly there are (283, according to the very good field guide); and my knowledge of why they’re interesting extends to a vague knowledge of a life cycle that begins with leathery things in muddy ponds.

20160629_184325
An Early bumblebee posing for Wild Reekie at Lochend Park in Edinburgh

But all it had taken to discover that they’re very beautiful — meaningful — important — in Christian terminology, sacred — was looking at them: something I never really did before I was cured of blindness, and took out the plank, that week in hospital.

 

Follow me on Twitter @eleanormharris.

Meeting the Botanists

I had an exciting meeting today with David Knott, curator of collections at the Botanics; my friend Dr Alan Elliott also at the Botanics; Henry Marsh, former head of English at the Edinburgh Academy and Glen Doll botanist of 40 years; and Tom Morton of Arc Architects who is going to build the new Blair House.
imag5641
We discussed how – without adding to budget or maintenance – we could design Blair House so as to grow some of the important shrubs, flowers, grasses, ferns, and mosses of Glen Doll on or around it.

My aim is to enable visitors to catch some of the excitement about Alpine catchfly, Woolly willow, Fragrant orchid, Silver ladies’ mantle or Blue sow-thistle which I catch when I talk to people like Henry, Alan or David.

Glen Doll is a nationally important habitat for species like these, but many of them can only be seen by scrambling up inaccessible cliffs, or hunting in remote corners of the plateau. Others are easy to walk to, but difficult to notice or identify without the help of an expert.

Blair House has the potential for providing an artificial cliff habitat, out of reach of grazing animals but within reach of people, to give a boost to the tiny populations of some of these plants, and to allow future generations of Glen Doll lovers to discover them.  
imag5645
I’m also talking to Tom about making sure we replace the essential accommodation for swallows, martens, and three species of bats which the old Blair House provided.

I’m hugely grateful to Alan, David and Henry for getting involved and I’m very much looking forward to working with them on what will be a far longer project than the building of the house. As David said, the most important requirement for a project of this sort is patience. The story of the Forfar Botanists which Alan has helped tell began over 200 years ago; the story of the Blair House Botanists starts here…

Eleanor

You can follow Blair House on Facebook and follow me on twitter.

The Great Bug Hug

In a weak moment, I’ve made my first bet — and I need your help to win it.

I work in Buglife Scotland, the invertebrates conservation charity. I bet my boss I could find them 100 new members in a year – so I’m hoping you might fork out £2 a month and join them.

Yesterday was fairly typical day in the office:

Craig, the head, is speaking to Radio Scotland, defending the rare Fonseca Seed Fly which inhabits dunes near Dornoch, threatened by a golf course.

“If it were pandas or tigers, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he’s saying. “This species is found only in Scotland: we have an international moral responsibility for it — and we have to speak up for it, because it can’t speak up for itself”.

Suzie leading a bug hunt on Arthur's Seat
Suzie leading a bug hunt on Arthur’s Seat

Gabby is out getting people doing a wood ant survey, #NestQuest. Suzie is also out creating green roofs and wildflower meadows on an invertebrate highway across the central belt, the John Muir Pollinator Way.

Scott, who’d probably rather be out on the 9000 year-old peat bog he is restoring, breaks off his day of wrestling spreadsheets to take me and David, the interns, for a lunchtime bug-hunt.

Lunchtime bug hunt with Scott and David
Lunchtime bug hunt with Scott and David

Buglife hosts lots of interns, and we emerge soaked in entomological expertise and enthusiasm. Both of us are tasked with passing that enthusiasm on to others: me to MSP Species Champions, and David to seemingly thousands of children.

Who knew that there are hundreds of species of micro-moth, of a dazzling array of beauty and cuteness? I thought they were just dusty things that ate one’s jumpers. I find different ones whenever I walk through long grass.

Who knew that Mayflies, those dangly things over rivers, come in over 50 British varieties: a fascinating and photogenic dancing creature, older than dinosaurs. Craig writes papers about them in his spare time.

An elegant Mayfly
An elegant Mayfly

But there’s one thing Buglife forget to speak up for: themselves. Almost without exception, when I tell people I work for Buglife, I’m met with blank looks.

This is not just a matter of modesty. Buglife is a member organisation. Having members gives it political clout — and when we are losing the environmental protection of the EU, when US investors are golf-coursing our dunes, when biodiversity is seemingly at the bottom of everyone’s political agendas — then having the weight of membership behind it is crucial.

Some of my micromoths
Some of my micromoths

Anyone who has followed Scottish and British party politics in the last few years knows how important membership is. Wildlife organisations are, in a sense, the political parties of non-human life: by joining them you lend them a great weight of endorsement.

Membership also means financial freedom. Membership funds provide the crucial core funding to pursue the unglamorous work that so often constitutes biodiversity protection. It’s hard enough for peat bogs and glow worms to compete with woodland and wildcat for funding and public awareness, never mind open mosaic habitat or the Manx Shearwater flea.

And so this was the soapbox I got up on one day in the office, when I bet Craig I could find 100 new members for Buglife in Scotland in a year.

A dinner is hanging on it.

More importantly my honour is hanging on it.

And much more importantly, 24,000 species, far more than are covered by any other conservation charity, are hanging on it (other invertebrate charities, covering the glamorous species such as butterflies and bumblebees, only cover around 1000 species). We have to speak up for them, because they can’t speak up for themselves.

So begins: the year of the Great Bug Hug.

So please join Buglife here. It will set you back £2 a month, somewhere between a bus ticket and a cup of coffee. It’s not all altruistic: you do get an excellent membership pack with invertebrate goodies.

20160801_204504

And when you fill in the form, where it says, “Where did you hear about Buglife”, the answer is — Eleanor Harris.

And please tell your friends: on facebook, on twitter, in the pub, #BugHug — you know the stuff.

And thank you!

Follow me on twitter and facebook.

Bain Bagging

Being up north last week gave me the opportunity to test out Clifton Bain’s The Ancient Pinewoods of Scotland: A Companion Guide, by visiting one of the most northerly of the pinewoods in Glen Alladale.

20160704_114817

You can read about this estate, which belongs to the enterprising and controversial Paul Lister in this article by Cameron MacNeish. My main aim was to test Clifton’s book, newly published in pocket format, and to enjoy exploring one of my favourite habitats, ancient pinewood.

20160704_134153

I’m increasingly of the view that one should explore Scottish habitats according to the weather:

If it’s a sunny, blustery day, go to see the peat bogs sparkle.

If it’s cool with high cloud, hike up the Munros to see the alpines.

If it’s hot and sultry, go to a white-sand beach for a swim.

And if it’s rainy, go to the forest, which will shelter you and also looks its best in the rain. Just one excellent reason Scotland’s forests should be restored to a much larger extent.

20160704_131554Caledonian pine forests feel biodiverse. They buzz and flutter with things, and there’s always the hope of Red squirrels and Crossbills: I had an unconfirmed glimpse of the latter, a departing flash of crimson.

20160705_22133220160705_22151020160704_12521120160704_140505

The book was all a companion guide should be: properly pocket-sized with a shower-proof cover doubling as a marker, with easily followed directions (designed so you can explore by public transport – but we didn’t), and a clear description. Ideally one would have the delicious coffee-table edition waiting back home, with the full text on the cultural heritage of these pine forests: the pocket version merely hints at a ‘sad tale of the Clearances’.

So begins the challenge of Bain Bagging: visiting all the ancient woods of Scotland. There are 38 pine forest to collect, and then there is the companion volume of the Atlantic Rainforests, which are all over Britain and Ireland.

I’m looking forward to collecting more, if I’m lucky enough to get wet days…

Green Gold

As the author of their recent report on Gender and Diversity in Scottish Forestry, I was invited by Confor (the forest industry body) to their Scotsman Conference in the National Gallery this morning. This brought together foresters, academics and politicians, chaired by the irrepressible Muriel Gray, like me a self-declared forest addict.

Plant More Trees

The conference was opened with what Muriel Gray described as a hand-grenade from Raymond Henderson of agribusiness consultant Bidwells, who pointed out that in 2013-15, only 3000ha of productive forestry was planted in Scotland. Scotland is 8 million ha, so to increase forest cover from 18% to 19% requires three areas the size of Edinburgh. The target for new forest by 2022 is 100,000ha, or four Edinburghs. Stuart Goodall, head of Confor, pointed out that there is no point planting new land unless you are also re-stocking felled areas (if you have travelled through the Scottish countryside recently you will know a huge amount of felling is going on), and statistics on this are sketchy. Keep an eye on this: it is important.

The City of Edinburgh area (marked here) is 26,000ha.

Jo O’Hara, head of the Forestry Commission in Scotland, said that woodland creation is the hardest part of her job: there is such a legacy of the mistakes of the ’70s and ’80s, and even then, planting rates didn’t reach 16,000ha per year.

Jo O’Hara’s slide showing forestry planting (conifer in blue, broadleaved in red) by decade since the 1970s. The line at the top is 16,000ha.

There was good news too: Andrew Vaughan, a regional manager with Tillhill forestry company, provided an inspiring case-study of their new planting scheme at Jerrah above Menstrie in the Ochils. Jerrah resulted in 1.3 million trees of 16 species over 583 hectares, and two PhDs.

Regulation

Raymond Henderson identified a major problem with the grant and regulatory system as the reason so little forest had been planted. Andrew Vaughan pointed out that to deliver planting targets will require many Jerrahs, and under current regulation this would require Environmental Impact Assessment documentation amounting to three Bibles. Tillhill is working on another scheme, Hawkhill: the new Forth Bridge will be built within the time it takes Hawkhill to go through the regulatory process.

Green Gold

This phrase was coined by Professor Sean Smith, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Construction at Napier. The representatives of the forestry industry in the room were delighted with it, so prepare to hear it more often. Andrew Heald, Technical Director of Confor, pointed out that Between 2008 (the start of the recession) and 2015, there was a 50% growth in Scottish forestry jobs.

Sean pointed out that a modern timber-frame house has energy bills one seventh of the Scottish average. Faced with the need to design for climate change, wood is capable of far more resilient constructions in the face of high winds than other materials. The fact that the new Edinburgh school wall which fell down in Storm Gertrude was brick was no coincidence.

Andrew Heald wanted to challenge the perception that Scottish timber is used to make toilet roll when it is mainly used in construction. Imagine growing a crop, he said, which needs no fertilizer or maintenance, grows on poor soil, for which demand’s set to double, which produces a construction material in a landscape which people want to go mountainbiking in – and does carbon capture and storage in the process. You wouldn’t go mountainbiking in a brickworks.

Public engagement

The panelists were in agreement that the forestry industry has learned from the regulatory mistakes of the past, and now must learn from the PR mistakes of the past. Jo O’Hara said that there are over 90 million visits a year to Scottish woodlands. Yet Andrew Heald pointed out that few of those 90 million come away with any idea that they have been in the midst of a £1bn industry, of green gold: many do not realise forests such as Glen Tress are productive at all.

Andrew Vaughan said that, according to the authorities, 100,000 people a year look over the Jerrah site from the top of Dumayat, but very few turn to look that way because they are all looking at the spectacular view of the Forth Valley. Yet the Jerrah scheme had to be redesigned so as not to be visible from Dumayat, or indeed to anyone looking at the Ochils by telescope from Edinburgh. He was making a point about the amount of design work required to satisfy regulations, but some of us environmentalists at the back muttered to each other that it was a shame the opportunity was not taken to re-educate people’s perceptions of the Scottish landscape, by allowing them a glimpse of a well-designed productive forest.

City trees: Princes Street Gardens on the way to the conference

The same point emerged from Sean Smith’s presentation: he showed new timber-frame houses replacing inefficient old ones on an estate in Fife, and celebrated the fact that despite their innovative building material they look like ‘traditional’ twentieth-century harled masonry. Is wood so ugly we really need to hide it away like this?

83% of Scots agree with the statement that a lot more trees should be planted. I was pleased Andrew Heald mentioned my project Wild Reekie, aimed at ordinary city types — those 83%, in fact — as an example of the kind of public engagement the forestry sector ought to be doing. It’s the kind of engagement I, as an environmentalist, also think we ought to be doing so I’m delighted to see a £1bn Scottish industry getting behind it.

Elizabeth Barron-Majerik, head of the Scottish School of Forestry, gave an important presentation on protecting the industry’s skills base, and reversing the declining knowledge of the sector amongst young people. She did exactly what I did when writing my Gender and Diversity report: google for ‘diversity in forestry’:

Google search for ‘diversity in Scottish forestry’

Whereas I had then tried another search term, Elizabeth used the recommendations she found for growing a diverse forest as analogies for growing a diverse forestry sector. For example, in a forest you plant closely and then thin it out: similarly, forestry education should aim to have a large intake, including many people who will never become foresters, who will take their knowledge and skills into other sectors. One of her recommendations I thought particularly interesting was to develop a forestry equivalent of STEM ambassadors going into schools.

This need for education was the theme of my Diversity and Gender report which people picked up in coffee-break conversations. One suggestion I liked was to revive the Guides forestry badges.

Sheep and Water

The conference gained a buzz from the fact that the importance of forestry in Scottish upland land-use has been high on the public agenda recently, both in terms of natural flood prevention, and of diversification for sheep farmers.

Jo O’Hara mentioned the support given a few weeks ago by the National Sheep Association to productive forestry in the Scottish uplands, which she sees as a huge breakthrough and accompanied by a significant change of mood.

Andrew Vaughan talked about the potential of Jerrah for reducing flooding in Menstrie. Historic farming practices had created 96km of drainage ditches linking into the Menstrie Burn: no wonder it floods. It is obvious to anyone who has walked through a wood after rain and seen a raindrop hanging on every needle, that once a forest grows up to ‘canopy closure’, runoff from a heavy rainstorm will be enormously slowed. But long before that, the modern skills in designing drainage ditches to drain ‘uphill’, and into wetland areas rather straight into the river, should be a huge improvement on the previous improved grassland.

A larch forest preventing rain reaching the ground.

Another great case-study, of the Eddleston Water Project, was presented by Hugh Chalmers of the Tweed Forum.

Who is my community?

There were presentations on community engagement from Rural Development Consultant Amanda Bryan and Fergus Tickell, chair of the Argyll Timber Transport Group which focused on the rural community. Yet to me, this is not addressing the 70% of us who live in the Central Belt — those of us who ‘want more forests’, ‘think Scottish timber is made into toilet paper’, and have a vague dislike of conifers. The divide between the populated, urban central belt and the rural north, west coast and south is so great in Scotland, and so important to forestry, that it needs to be identified and discussed.

With my ‘diversity’ hat on, I thought the rural-urban divide was particularly evident on the political panel. Andy Wightman (Green) is a candidate for the Lothians, but Claudia Beamish (Labour), Alex Fergusson (Conservative) and Jim Hume (Liberal Democrat) are all MSPs in the South Scotland region while Michael Russell (SNP) is MSP for nearby Argyll and Bute. They were also mostly members of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee.

It was striking, and cheering for those of us who like consensus, how far the political panel were in agreement with each other and with the foresters. Michael Russell said the two top priorities for the next parliament should be reducing the bureaucracy involved in new planting schemes, and improving deer control. The other parties were generally in agreement. I was surprised that the only spontaneous applause from this rural industry was for the Green, Andy Wightman, who said that instead of having a Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment, who claims to ‘represent farmers’, with an Environment Minister underneath, there should be a Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, with Agriculture and Forestry Ministers underneath.

But I did wonder, how many of the urban colleagues of that well-informed and consensual cross-party panel would understand or care about the timber industry, natural flood management, or ensuring planting or re-stocking targets are met? Was this a ‘forestry interest’ just talking to itself? It’s the politicians who have the strong links into the rest of society, and so this is my challenge to them: over the election period and in the next parliament, to get their central belt colleagues out into the woods with some of those forward-thinking foresters — or their party risks getting left behind at the place where £1bn industry meets environmental crisis.

Before you go, spend two minutes watching the new Confor video — and make sure you go into a wood next weekend…

Eleanor Harris is a historian and environmentalist. She can be found @eleanormharris or on her rather out-of-date website at eleanormharris.co.uk

Business-as-Unusual

The aim of Natural Capital is to engage business, which accounts for the majority of human exploitation of the environment, as a force for valuing and restoring it. It draws on many other ideas such as environmental footprinting and social enterprise. It is based in a recognition that many decades of “traditional environmentalism” — traditionally somewhat antagonistic to business — have demonstrably and spectacularly failed to change anything.

The World Forum on Natural Capital 2015, organised by Scottish Wildlife Trust, took place ten minutes from my house. I was there as a volunteer but managed to participate in almost the whole event, although some frantic last-minute registration meant I missed the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who, according to all the reports I heard, skilfully name-checked such an incredible number of initiatives that everyone came out feeling special. There were plenty of Scottish participants including SNH; good news of new initiatives especially the launch of the Peatland Code which could have important impacts on the Scottish landscape; and a specific Scottish Natural Capital ‘stream’ of breakout meetings which I hope to hear a report from. I think, however, that the question someone asked about how North Sea Oil fits into Scottish Natural Capital accounting, which wasn’t answered, needs to keep being asked.

I hope that the sceptical environmentalists, of whom there were many present, were won over by the possibilities even if they remained healthily critical of the claims of specific businesses and governments. “In the sustainability sector we love reinventing the wheel and preaching to the converted”, said one speaker welcoming the hundreds of business participants. “Today we have a chance not to do that”. “I’m from a financial background,” said Michael Meehan, “and I’ve been working for this convergence with environmentalism all my life — as I know many people in the business community have”.

We learned about a proliferation of initiatives to turn the theory of Natural Capital into practice. The Inclusive Wealth Index, which combines produced capital, human capital and natural capital and demonstrates that most countries are experiencing serious economic decline; Natural Captains, a Dutch-based coalition of businesses committed to leadership in Natural Capital processes; and Cradle to Cradle, one of the tools they use to improve product design, are just three.

The fact that this multiplication of experiments makes the whole area impossibly confusing especially for smaller businesses was discussed, illustrated by the clip of Robin Williams playing a Soviet immigrant to the US having a melt-down trying to choose from a whole aisle of types of coffee. The launch of the consultation on the first draft of the Natural Capital Protocol was a key event of the Forum which aims to address this issue.

We heard inspiring case studies of state-scale approaches to Natural Capital policy making. A telling graph from Botswana (below) showed how water use in different sectors had been compared to GDP and employment: either agriculture (far left) is using far too much water, or its contribution to Botswana’s society is drastically undervalued, or perhaps both.

Pakistan, a country which is one of the smallest contributors to and one of the biggest victims of climate injustice to date, has used natural capital accounting to implement state-scale strategies for climate change resilience (below), including a project to (I could have cheered at this) plant a billion trees in five years. “Resilience” was one of the key words of the project: it is why biodiversity per se is the most valuable asset we have.

An example from Canada demonstrated how collaboration is required in public-sector policymaking as much as in business: from the mountain behind our town to the sea, said one speaker, a cubic metre of water passes through six different policy regions.

What struck me as the conference went on was how radical the thinking was within the business paradigm, that is, amongst CEOs, accountants, insurance underwriters, who had no intention of closing their operations down, getting out of the way, and waiting for some kind of experiment in social organisation to emerge. “Our challenge is not to monetarise nature but to naturalise the economy” was one phrase I noted down, which was my most-shared on twitter although someone pointed out it needed a good deal of unpacking to mean anything. “We must standardise our Natural Capital accounting in a few years, not the 150 years it took global financial reporting” was another. “It’s my firm belief”, said another, “we are building a better system, which takes genuine account of environmental and social as well as financial value”. “Our current economic models are as unscientific as the flat-earth movement”, said a fourth. “We can and must change our whole concept of money and value”. The urgent need for rapid, profound, fundamental change was everywhere, and the one concept which was completely absent was any possibility of “business as usual”.

What I found most interesting, because I hear the environmental viewpoints all the time, were the contributions from the business side. The ones I noted included these. Natural Capital assets are great assets to have because if maintained properly they maintain their value, never depreciating or having to be replaced. The average life of a business is less than ten years, so the biggest sector to be engaged to create change in 20 or 40 years are businesses not yet started. (I heard a practical way to address this capacity-building issue in another session: get sustainability tools into MBAs.) “I bet he’s a pretty hard-nosed businessman though”, said my forester friend Simon as we discussed Peter Bakker of the CEO-led World Business Council for Sustainable Development. “That thing he said: ‘you can come and talk to me about anything, but you have to tell me which of the Sustainable Development Goals it relates to first'”.

Also inspiring were the large-scale examples of rapid ecosystem restoration. An experiment in creating “no-take” marine zones (initially to the chagrin of local fishermen) showed that it only took three years for fishermen to start increasing their income as the regeneration of fish in the no-take zone spilled out into neighbouring areas. The National Geographic Pristine Seas project is preserving the last remaining unexploited marine ecosystems as priceless examples of how the seas should be, yielding surprising scientific discoveries for example that the biomass of top predators (like sharks) is greater than everything else — as if the African plains had two lions for every wildebeest. “One of the most important stories I’ve ever covered”, said film-maker John Liu (below), describing such transformations in China and Mali, “is that it is possible to restore degraded ecosystems”.

One of the points made in the closing plenary was that these extraordinary stories of nature’s restoration, which inspire people to participate in ‘doing their bit’ are far too rarely told compared to disaster stories which cause people to give up.

I am most personally grateful to the Forum for its coffee breaks where I met all sorts of wonderful people for the first time: Angelika Końko from the Forestry Commission, Maggie Keegan of Scottish Wildlife Trust, James Nikitine of Green TV, Matthew Roy of Greener Leith, Nicky Chambers of the Future Centre and Alex Kinninmonth of Scottish Wildlife Trust amongst others.

What do I hope the Forum will achieve? One small hope of mine is it might provoke the venue, the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, to consider its natural capital management – especially if the Forum takes place there for the third time in 2017. I walk through its environs almost every day and always imagine what it could be like if the piazzas were ‘de-paved’, with more trees, wild-flower beds and flowering shrubs humming with pollinators and birds and soaking up the perpetual puddles which block my path.

I also noticed the EICC lights were halogen, tangibly warming the rooms beneath: when we calculated the energy savings of switching from halogen to LED’s at St John’s Church just around the corner, we found the payback time was so short that the replacement was made instantly. I did, however, love the EICC’s classy tap-water dispensers which I hope appear at all conferences not just sustainability ones — although as someone pointed out, you could make havoc with a bottle of vodka…

I had one reflection as a historian. Most references to “the current system”, our capitalist economy, seemed to assume that it was the problem, an unprecedented new curse creating an unprecedented new crisis. This was the implication of the speaker from the Netherlands, when he put up an image (below) of the charter of the first (Dutch) commercial company in 1606, commenting that this model of business which separates money and ideals was no longer sufficient.

But one speaker gave a different narrative. Every civilisation in human history has met with the fate we face: they over-reached their natural resources and collapsed. The only unprecedented thing about our predicament is that our civilisation is planetary. People nodded sagely at both these narratives, but they conflict. Moreover, the second narrative (which I find much more historically satisfactory) challenges the oft-repeated idea that “traditional cultures” can provide alternative models of human existence we can use. They are not civilisations; and whether we like it or not, we are. Our challenge is to be the first civilisation in history not to destroy itself.

I put this to Nicky Chambers in the final coffee break, and she said, “As a biologist, I’d go further: the challenge is, can we do better than yeast?” The environmental crisis is not just a crisis of civilisation: it is a crisis of humanity. We are at the point where we prove whether we are, or aren’t, in any way more intelligent or moral than yeast, eating up its food source until it runs out and dies. At the World Forum on Natural Capital, every mind was focused on demonstrating that we are.

I hope to hear more reflections, plans, and outcomes of the World Forum on Natural Capital. “I insist you go out of these doors as a leader”, said Jonny Hughes in the final plenary. If the 500+ delegates (not to mention us volunteers) took that insistence to heart, armed with the information and connections we made in the last two days — well, I always said I believed in miracles.

Prawn Wars

I was impressed by the BBC Scotland Landward special, “Prawn Wars”, still available on iPlayer until Wednesday.

I thought I was well-informed about Scottish fishing issues, a subject I first encountered in long “Church and Nation” reports at the Church of Scotland General Assembly, agonising about the state of Scottish coastal parishes. Earlier this year I discovered the excellent visitor interpretation at FSC Millport, which highlights the impact of scallop dredging on the delicate ecosystems of the Firth of Clyde estuary, and lets you practice sustainable hand-diving of scuttling scallops in big Belfast sinks.

However, I felt much better briefed after the Landward special, which discusses the similar conflict between trawlers and creelers fishing prawns off the west coast of Scotland. It is in-depth and impartial, exploring the interrelations between sustainability, economics and human communities.

The most important thing I learned was that in the nineteenth century a three-mile limit on trawling in inshore waters was established to conserve fisheries, regulation removed by the Thatcher government in 1984.

It also made me look again at a picture on my wall, painted around 1980 by my grandmother Margaret Jackson who was inspired by the Scottish artist Lowry.

It depicts a Scottish fishing community, although it is not on the west coast, but North Berwick, on the east. It’s based on a real scene, although there is not a little dash of fantasy. I believe that may be myself, being pushed in a buggy by my mum in red trousers.

Although the harbour is busy, the fishing industry seems to be struggling. One of the fishermen has retired to take tourist excursions to the Bass Rock. The boat in the foreground, which seems to be a trawler, has caught some rare bycatch. The little boats on the right, which look busy and businesslike, are perhaps creelers, enjoying the last few years of protected fishing.

Perhaps this fantasy scene of pipe-bands and mermaids does not add much to our understanding of the “prawn wars”. But, painted at a crucial moment in the history of Scottish fishing, it captures the entanglement of economics, employment, environment, tourism, history, and romance which form the human ecosystem of the Scottish coast.

Thank you, Landward, for making the picture so much more interesting.

 

 

 

Treasuries for the Wind: Achieving Zero-Carbon Britain

He bringeth the wind out of his treasuries. Psalm 135 v.7

I have an innate suspicion of novel environmental technologies. Too often they seem to be an excuse for inaction: nuclear fusion or carbon capture and storage lurk just around the corner, their concepts inexplicable to the educated general reader (me), giving us the small excuse we need to fail to plant trees, to fail to insulate our loft.

So when in a Friends of the Earth debate yesterday Paul Allen, head of Zero Carbon Britain mentioned something called “syngas” as a key component of his proposal for a Zero Carbon Edinburgh, I was not going to take it on trust.

The Technology

The concept is simple: on a windy Scottish day when electricity from turbines threatens to overwhelm the grid (the mountainous blue ‘surplus’ in the graphic below), switch on a syngas plant; use the electricity to convert water and carbon dioxide into methane; and fill up the nation’s gas holders. Even I understand the chemistry of that. A similar process can also make liquid vehicle fuel.

It sounded too simple. Why isn’t it being done already? A couple of us in the audience pressed him, but the debate was heading in a different direction. So today, with the help of the Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience in Dundee, I did a bit of investigation.

It does work. It is not a perpetual motion machine. It’s known as power-to-gas, and two years ago Audi opened a pioneering 6MW facility in Germany.

Perhaps it’s too inefficient? Perhaps a whole windfarm in a gale would only heat one boiler in a draughty Victorian villa? But no, Wikipedia helpfully informs me, the conversion rate is 50-60% efficiency, far greater than the “efficient” gas turbine power stations, which achieve less than 40% making the conversion in the other direction.

That wasted electricity could create significant quantities of gas, from atmospheric CO2.

The Economics

So why does every big wind farm not have a power-to-gas facility, so that instead of seeing half their turbines switched off on a windy day so as not to overload the grid, we would see a gas holder filling up?

The brain-sprain for traditional energy economics is: electricity is inefficient and expensive, fossil gas is inexpensive and efficient, so who in their right mind would take hard-won electricity and turn it into gas? We use gas to make electricity! It’s like spinning gold into straw! But this is the economics of the fossil economy.

In the climate change economy, the fossil gas must stay in the ground, at any cost. And in the renewables economy, heaps of electricity is free: that big blue surplus. It’s wasted; is is not even created: the wind turbine stands idle.

But once this brain-sprain is overcome there is a more specific economic barrier. Feed-in tariffs have been vital in creating investment in renewables infrastructure. They have worked by guaranteeing a steady income to renewables generators even when the grid doesn’t need it. This has been great for investment in renewables, but when power-to-gas came on the scene, there was no incentive for wind farmers to invest in such technology, because you were still paid for keeping your turbine switched off.

Make the feed-in tariff for large new wind-farms contingent on including a power-to-gas facility, and the economic problem is solved.

The Politics

But it takes more than technological and economic theory to get a new environmental technology working. There’s the politics.

People object enough to wind farms. Think what they’ll say if they become wind farms with gas holders!

People come to expect subsidies. What will investors do if they have new conditions attached?

Yet what are the alternatives? Will fracking fossil gas, to generate electricity when the wind is not blowing, be more politically popular? I am delighted to say it will not, and I will be as opposed as anyone. The fossil carbon must stay in the ground. Incentivising North Sea Oil? This has iconic Scottish status, but as an energy source it is just as finite, and more importantly just as environmentally disastrous.

On the contrary, doesn’t the possibility of developing a power-to-gas and offshore wind offer a superb opportunity to transform the north of Scotland from an oil dinosaur into a world-leading renewables powerhouse? Aberdeen a granite rival to Dubai in embracing new, sustainable energy technologies? Much of the expertise and infrastructure used in the north sea oil industry — such as platforms, and getting to them — are transferable.

The political barriers are small. The political advantages of power-to-gas in a renewables economy — for economic boost, for an iconic Scottish industry, for social justice for the oil workforce, for the environment — are so enormous that I don’t know whether the Conservatives, SNP, Labour or Greens should be most excited by it.

The Culture

By far the biggest barrier to environmental change is the cultural one. Nobody has yet found an ethical way to change a society’s behaviour. Yet this is where power-to-gas is the biggest winner.

The big problem with many renewables scenarios is they involve transformation of our personal infrastructure: electric heating, electric cars, smart-grids that charge us a premium for doing our laundry on non-windy days. If our aim is a speedy transition to zero carbon Edinburgh, or Scotland, or Britain, what hope do we have of persuading everyone to replace their central heating, buy a different type of car, when we cannot even get the nation’s lofts properly insulated?

But with power-to-gas this is not necessary. Our old friend, gas (ah, that nice blue flame), comes into our boilers and our cookers via a carbon-neutral cycle, synthesised by the power of wind. Our transport can still run, not on acres of valuable land intensively farmed for biofuel, but on fuel synthesised by wind. Our heritage streets can be lit with gaslight, if we like.

And for that matter — it’s easy to forget this sometimes occurs around here — it also works with solar, on those days when we aren’t using any electricity at all because we are all outside, basking.

Investigate it

I am no expert. I only heard of power-to-gas yesterday. There may well be important disadvantages or barriers to using surplus renewable electricity to synthesise methane from water and carbon dioxide, which I have not discovered. I would be grateful to hear if you know of them, so that I can update this article.

But there are also times when, in the cataclysm of lobbying, interests, campaigns, partial views, it is simply that no-one has yet put together the jigsaw of technology, economics, politics and culture together to see the workable policy.

I’ve tried to put that jigsaw together. This article gives some more detail on the technology and the economic issues. The zero-carbon Britain project would be the people to contact for further advice.

My aim is simply to inspire policymakers, investors, you noisy lot in our little Scottish public sphere, to investigate it further, and see where it might go.

Treasuries for the Wind? The old Granton gasworks, Edinburgh, drawn by Ian Lutton (http://www.grantonhistory.org/industry/gas_works.htm)

Glen Doll Forest

One upon a time, there was a dark, dark moor,
and on that moor there was a dark, dark wood,
and in that wood there was a dark, dark house…

Blair House, Glen Doll, Angus

So began a beautifully-illustrated children’s book. I loved it because after the spookiness its ending is all homely, and because it made me think of Blair House, Glen Doll. I didn’t know one day Blair House would be mine, and I’d be restoring it as a field centre.

Doll is the Angus glen with the forest: the biggest on the Munro-strewn plateau that heaves between Deeside and the Mearns. Glen Doll forest clothes the midway point on Jock’s Road, the ancient drove road from Braemar to Kirriemuir.

Blair House, on the edge of the forest, was acquired from the farm which it adjoins by the Forestry Commission, who sold it on to the Edinburgh Academy after the forest was planted. Its history is entangled in the forest.

I love Glen Doll forest because it has no pretentions. It panders to no human constructs of aesthetics or authenticity: neither “picturesque plantation” nor “native restoration”. It’s a functional timber crop of spruce, larch, fir, and lodgepole pine, yet it has grown so much richer than that. It provides vital shelter and variation in habitat. It covers land which would have been forest originally, now denuded and degraded by millenia of overgrazing, nothing like the pristine bogland notoriously damaged by ill-placed spruce plantations in Sutherland.

Glen Doll Forest with the peak of Mayar (top left) above Corrie Fee, Craig Rennet (centre), and Jock’s Road running left to right.

Parts of Glen Doll forest have grown over-mature and begun tumbling down, creating glades and deadwood. Parts are being clearfelled, parts replanted, parts managed for leisure and biodiversity.

Summer larches and bilberry understory (V’s photo)

Conservationists argue incessantly about how Scotland’s landscape should be managed, but on one thing they all agree: we need more trees. We need them for biodiversity, and we need them for ourselves. Trees are our best renewable fuel and building material, and, vitally, our only effective method of carbon sequestration.

There is nothing ‘wild’ about Scotland’s landscape: humans have been shaping the Angus glens since the stone age. Glen Doll forest is a fine example of how our influence can enhance, instead of degrading it, while making our own living from it. It is practising John Ruskin’s economics: “THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE”.

The woods on the Kilbo Path are strewn with boulders, full of the sound of tumbling water, and rich in mosses, ferns, and starry flowers.

Glen Doll forest has got into my Blair House refurbishment. I investigated biofuel pellets and ground source heat pumps; I was recommended oil; but I came back to log burners. I’ve contacted the foresters, and they can supply me. Instead of switching a switch to keep warm, people staying at Blair House will feel the roughness of Glen Doll timber in their hands, smell its scent, see it glow and hear it crackle. That’s being in touch with nature.

Loving the trees at Blair House. That’s me in green.

But we must plant more trees. And it is no good to say; we’ll do that later. The ease with which we can spend nature’s resources while so busy with our own thing is our downfall. There is no economics too costly, no politics too urgent, no religion too true, to delay restoring nature. The World Wildlife Fund as calculated that when Blair House first became a school field centre in 1970, there was twice as much nature in the world as there is today. Unless we put more back into nature than we take out of it every day of our lives, we will lose, catastrophically and soon. We need to write restoration into our every act.

This is why I have teamed up with Trees for Life for my Blair House fundraiser. For every £25 donation, £5 will plant a tree. When Blair House is open, guests will be invited to plant trees for the cars they drive and the wood they burn. This is not a gimmick, or a distraction, or a romance. This is writing restoration of nature into the down-to-earth running of Blair House.

Pines at Bachnagairn. (V’s photo)

Trees for Life are restoring the ancient Caledonian pine forest which once reached as far as Angus, but their work currently focuses on Dundreggan further north. You can find scraps of it around Glen Doll at the steep corrie-ends and amongst the boulders out of reach of deer: Corrie Fee, Bachnagairn, and one above the treeline above Jock’s Road which we christened ‘the magic wood’.

‘The Magic Wood’, Jock’s Road, showing the natural treeline should be far above the extent of the planted forest.

These are my tales of Glen Doll forest. If you like them, please help me restore Blair House, and plant a tree: here’s the link.

I love the larch because it is deciduous, marking the seasons like a Japanese garden. In spring it bursts out in pink flowers…
… and in autumn transform to gold. (V’s photo)

In autumn the forest’s fungus community puts on a glorious display of mushrooms: if one isn’t enough, here is an album.

In winter spruce and fir make far better shelter than larch. Looking down from Craig Mellon in December, the woods look like warm woollen rugs on the landscape.

“You struck off from Dundee, up through Angus, heading deep into the glens and up and over, aiming for Deeside. Snow covered the higher peaks. […] You were in amongst a circle of pines, gently brushing the upper inches of the thick needle blanket into a deep, dry bed. […] When you awoke you had been there long enough for a white sheet to have drifted down over you. You stood and shook yourself. […] and soon you were on a track across a moor, climbing into the dimming light. The wind rose and the snow came on more densely, piling up with astonishing speed. In a while you realised you’d made a mistake by leaving the shelter of the trees.” James Robertson, And the Land Lay Still.

 When I was very little, we used to make little houses for mice amongst the tree roots, inspired by Brambly Hedge and Beatrix Potter: a slate table and log benches, a carpet of fine red beech leaves, a feast of shiny mast, with their cuppy shells for candelabra, and lichen flames. 

Mum used to organise treasure hunts through the woods for me and my sister and my friend Lucy. Look, there’s a clue in that tree! And we’re deep in the woods on our own!

When I was twelve, Lucy, her friend Vicky and I were sent off by our parents to do the Edinburgh Academy wayfaring course right round the forest. We were into Eternal Flame, unrequited love, ghost stories, and, in my case, developing my arty photographs in darkrooms. It was October, mists rose out of the trees, and stags were bellowing on the hills all around us. We worked ourselves into an exquisite gothic terror, especially at one particular marker post, Number Ten, deep in a ride in the darkest part of a fir plantation.

I went back in 2012 to see how many of the wayfaring posts were still there, and found about half of them. I was excited to revisit Number Ten and approched it from the direction we had come almost twenty years before. But forest had been felled, and I found myself crossing a hundred yards of windblow. I thought I might never get out.

As I remembered how we had imagined Number Ten was enchanted, or cursed, it occurred to me that if I impaled myself or broke my neck here, no one would ever find me. Number Ten, when I eventually found it, was well outside the forest, amazingly still there. No, I’m not telling you where.

 We also used to love going for late night walks in the dark, letting the forest enwrap us. And when Lucy published her first novel last year, there it was:

“We let our eyes adjust to the dark, agreeing we would only use the torch if we got lost. Sound and touch became everything: the roar of the river, the crack of twigs under our feet, Jonathan’s strong, warm hand taking mine. […] After ten minutes’ steep climb we came out of the trees at the viewpoint. There was a narrow bench and we sat down. The mountains were just traceable against the sky. They seemed to have a presence in the darkness. […] “Look at the stars!” Lucy Lawrie, Tiny Acts of Love.

The landscape is always changing: the trees have grown up so far at Lucy’s “viewpoint” that it is a name one can only pronounce now in inverted commas. When she came back with her own children last year, I showed her a new path through the woods along the river, where once we had struggled like pioneers in jungle. Her children were enchanted, like we were.

 

It’s time for a re-enchantment of our landscape, of our society. Plant trees.
Or it’s time for an evidence-based, long-term economic policy. Plant trees.
Or it’s time to take practical action to mitigate climate change. Plant trees.
Plant trees.

Blair House will enable hundreds more people to encounter the enchanted, humble Glen Doll forest. Please follow this link to support its refurbishment – and plant a tree. You can find out about the Trees for Life Caledonian Pine Forest restoration on their website

Eleanor Harris @eleanormharris.

Photos mainly by me except for those by V who prefers to remain anonymous.

Red and green.

Looking across the forest to Craig Mellon from the window of Blair House in summer.
Larches and Scots Pines (V’s photo).
Rainbow over a forest road.
The Whitewater in summer.
I love walking in the woods in heavy rain. You are sheltered and the trees turn to diamonds.
The woods immediately behind Blair House are not Forestry Commission, but associated with the old hunting lodge, and are full of ancient treasures and mossy riches.
V’s photo.
Larches and fir at Lucy’s Viewpoint.
Fern, sorrel, anenome: rich shapes in the forest understorey.
Blair House behind a licheny bough.

The Great Glen Doll Meadow

I’ve rescued and am refurbishing an old independent school field centre in Angus. It’s a super house with which I have a long connection, but Glen Doll is even greater: a forest surrounded by a mighty Cairngorm plateau with thirteen Munros within reach. But greatest of all are its flowers.

One corner, Corrie Fee, is a site of global importance, which has inspired botanists for centuries, from the Forfar botanists who pioneered plant surveys of the British Empire, to modern Forfar botanist Alan Elliott of the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, to Mum, me and forester Andy Heald, armed with a field guide, no Latin names, and not much head for heights.

Corrie Fee waterfall, Andy being brave, and all we found was a globe flower, but it was a triumphant one!

Botany forms an important part of my vision for Blair House. The house is right in the glen: all my photographs on this page were taken within a few miles’ walk of it. Learning to recognise flowers is one of the easiest ways for people of any age to reconnect with the diversity and beauty of nature. With a great variety of landscape types — forest, lowland pasture, protected and degraded upland, cliff, alpine and wetland — and good existing records, there is great potential for field trips and research.

This is why in raising the funds necessary to reopen Blair House I decided to create the Great Glen Doll Meadow. Everyone who pledges £10 or more to the crowdfund for refurbishment will receive enough seeds to plant a square metre of wildflowers – poppy, mayweed, bugloss, teasel, marigold, yarrow, knapweed, bedstraw, scabious, campion, ragged robin, vetch and more. You can sow these in your garden or a windowbox or perhaps in a neglected patch outside your office or school. I’d like you to post a photo of your flowers on the Blair House facebook page which I can collate into an album. The seeds are a mix of Scottish varieties from Scotia seeds based in Brechin, not far from Glen Doll.

So thanks to you, Blair House will not only be a place from which to look at flowers: it will also start out as a place which planted flowers, supported bees and other invertebrates, and inspired people with the wonder of the natural world — before they even arrive. Make your pledge of £10 now, and get your bit of the Great Glen Doll Meadow.

Bedstraw predominating in a summer riot of flowers and grass above the tree line on Jock’s Road
Anemone in the deep dark woods; sneezewort on the high mountain pasture.

Last April it was still all grey mist, rock, lichen: then I spotted the pink treasures: larch flowers, and high on the grey hillsides tiny purple saxifrage.
Little wild pansies, and tiny tiny eyebright: each one painted like delicate watercolours or ladies’ eyes, to draw in the bees.

Frances hunting the perfect botanical photograph in the woods on the Kilbo Path.

Even as a very amateur naturalist, by learning to recognise the common flowers I can spot something a bit more unusual. This scrap of canary-yellow crumpled silk in its cherry-coloured crinoline, prancing high up the mountain, turned out to be a rock-rose.

My enduring favourite flower is one of the commonest: harebells. They look as if spiders have been constructing an orchestra on principles of gothic architecture from scraps of summer sky.

Orchids on the mountain and by the stream. Marching armies, of whirling dervishes.

No Scottish glen would be complete without heather and ling. Tons of it.

A forget-me-not in the Blair House carpark. A symbol of love all constructed on mathematical principles, like something out of the Scottish Enlightenment.

The historic flora of Corrie Fee is symbolic of the need to restore biodiversity and people’s connection with nature. Please make your pledge today, and invite a friend to be part of the Great Glen Doll Meadow.

Knapweed, thistles and scabious: so tough, bright, profuse, Scottish.