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Trainee Blog – Habitats Week

TMTP Trainees create and improve habitats for amphibians, water vole and otter with the Forestry Commission Scotland

Monday 10th September, creating a pond and two amphibian hibernacula

On the Monday, we worked alongside Simon Smith from Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS). Having driven to the worksite, which was a welcome luxury after our long walk-ins on Ben Lomond we gathered our tools, received instruction on the work being done and set about it.  Near Doon Hill, a short walk from Aberfoyle, there is a fenced off patch of land designated for habitat creation and the encouragement of biodiversity.  Our task, in an effort to encourage biodiversity, was to create a pond with two amphibian hibernacula nearby.

As this patch of land was without any stagnant bodies of water, many amphibious species would have been unlikely to find the area particularly accommodating. So, in the interests of biodiversity it was decided that something ought to be done. We began our day by felling some intrusive Sitka spruce trees to use in our amphibian hibernacula. A bonus of using the self-sewn spruce trees is that we could aid the efforts of FCS to remove this non-native tree species from areas of ecological importance. So, with a layer of cut-up spruce, squashed down by grassy turfs, before piling on another layer of each, we constructed two amphibian hibernacula.

These structures have certain elegance about them, perhaps in their practical simplicity if nothing else. Fortunately, Scotland’s amphibian and reptile population aren’t too picky about how glamorous their overwinter hide-away is, and practical simplicity (we can only presume) suits them just fine. With some luck various animal species will find their way here in the coming years, and if our work makes them feel at home then it will have been a success.

The centrepiece of this worksite however, is the pond. Construction began with consideration, as we needed to build what will hopefully be a functioning habitat. The design itself needed to be one that encouraged amphibian into the area. This meant the banks of the pond varied between gradual and steep inclines, with steps and levels set in to allow for an ever-changing environment depending on the amount of rainfall.

The placement of the pond was also an important feature and is not only complimented by a natural dip in the landscape, but also by a man-made drainage ditch dug through the dip, meaning once this ditch was blocked off we had an ideal spot for our pond to collect water.

Once we had dug our pond and were satisfied with its profile, the final touch was to scatter wild-flower seed. Iris and marsh marigold, to valerian and sneezewort were scattered around the banks of the pond and up around the surrounding area…because after all a pond with water in it is all well and good, but a pond bursting with plant life is an amphibian’s dream come true.

Having constructed the pond on the Monday, we came back on the Tuesday morning to find a small pool of water in the very bottom tier of our pond. Needless to say we were delighted.  Having returned again on the Wednesday we found the water level to have risen again. It’s early days for our wee pond, but we’re already pleased it, and if any passing frogs decide to take refuge in our hibernacula then we’ll be over the moon.

Tuesday 11th September, clearing Sitka spruce regeneration

Today we were working deep inside the FCS Queen Elizabeth Forest, in the heart of the Trossachs, our task was to clear Sitka spruce regeneration. It might seem surprising that the FCS is concerned with the removal of spruce regeneration – but this task is essential for the conservation of the riparian waterways which run through this wonderful landscape. FCS is Scotland’s largest landowner and is responsible for protecting large tracts of land for conservation purposes; these waterways form vital habitat corridors for the native wildlife and plants endemic to the Scottish Highlands.

As part of their work to protect and preserve these habitat corridors, FCS is part of an ambitious water vole reintroduction project. The water vole – we know them better as Ratty from the Wind and the Willows – were almost extinct in Scotland, this project has successfully re-introduced over 1000 of these wee mammals to riparian areas in the Trossachs.

So why are water voles so important? Water voles are like small ecosystem engineers – they create burrows on the edges of burns and lochs and this digging activity changes the composition of the soil, creating pockets of dryer soil which encourages a more diverse range of plants to establish. In essence they create a more biodiverse habitat, which generates a broader range of food and in turn a greater range of bird, invertebrate and reptile species can survive and flourish. They really enrich the areas where they live.

Keeping these riparian zones free of Sitka spruce regeneration is crucial to the survival of the water vole in Scotland and all the other species which rely on its presence.

For more information about the water vole project go to the Facebook page

Or check out the FCS website

Photo credit: FCS water vole website page.

Wednesday 12th September, creating an otter holt

Wednesday arrived with sunnier skies and our third habitat management task – building an otter holt. The function of an otter holt is to provide safe lying up sites for otters to take refuge and rest in during the day. This also works towards encouraging them to re-colonise and breed in areas of waterways where there is currently little or no otter activity present.

So, with an enthusiasm for encouraging biodiversity and boosting otter welfare and population, we went in search of the perfect place for an otter oasis along with the expertise of Helen Stewart from FCS and scoured the river bank for any suitable areas and telltale signs of otter activity such as prints, scat and slides.

After searching for a suitable spot along the riverbank we came across an area with dappled sunlight and good access to the river, and after convincing ourselves that the indentations running down the banking were infact the evidence of belly sliding otters, we settled upon that as an appropriate area for our holt

Satisfied with our chosen location, we then left the river and ventured into the forest, equipped with silky saws in search of Sitka spruce and Birch trees to harvest for building materials. These trees were selected specifically due to the mixture of hard and soft wood which have varying rates of decomposition, which will hopefully result in a longer lasting structure.

Once we had sourced enough material, we then began the building process. Logs were cut to measure and placed on the ground to mark out the shape of the holt.

The holt itself was planned to incorporate a bedding chamber with an internal entrance measuring and at least one external chamber/ corridor with two exits to the outside.

The logs were then secured in place with stakes and piled on top of each other until they were high enough to create walls that were at least 450mm high. Exits and corridors were also built wide enough to allow otters to turn around whilst one exit faced towards the water and the other exit faced dry land to allow easy access and escape routes for the otters.

Once the walls were piled high and stabilised, branches were then placed across the top to form roof struts which were then covered with brash until no light was able to enter the bedding chamber. The brash was stacked high to prolong decomposition and weather proofing. The brash also provided the holt with great camouflage.

Our day building the otter holt was a great experience and highly edifying. The little break from path building gave us the opportunity to explore other aspects of environmental conservation and really appreciate how important it is to help protect and preserve these wonderful wild places and the life that blossoms within them.

We send a huge thank you out to Simon, Helen and her lovely dog Bob who all made the three days fantastically worthwhile.

Blog by Ceara Law, Rachael Ashdown, Mathew Anderson – 2018 Trainees of the Outdoor Access Trust for Scotland’s flagship project, The Mountains & The People.