Author Archives: David

About David

beekeeper, lumberjack, canoeist, fisherman, firestarter

Nestboxes

The plot on Ardnamurchan is south facing hillside and was originally probably a mix of scrubby birch and oak woodland with dense ground cover of bracken. Over the years rhododendron have infested the site and, despite being cut back severely 10-15 years ago, still predominate.

Nestbox #3 and #4

Nestbox #3 and #4

I’m working hard to clear the rhododendron with the long-term goal of planting more native woodland. In the meantime I’m keen to improve the habitat in other ways that will benefit the local bird population.

Trees

As well as the dense and dreary understory of rhododendron, there are quite a few substantial trees around the plot. These include a number of mature (perhaps 40+ year old) larches, some Scots pine, quite a bit of birch and a few scattered rowan and hazel.

With the exception of the conifers, most of the trees are relatively small. Very few offer hole-nesting birds any real opportunities.

The future tree planting will be aimed at improving the pollen and nectar sources for pollinators (like bees, which need ample early season pollen for brood rearing) and the insect population. Caterpillars and larvae of the latter will boost the food available for the birds.

However, none of these new trees will provide any suitable sites for hole-nesting birds. At least not in the foreseeable future or, in the case of hazel and willow which will probably be coppiced, ever.

Nestboxes

About €60 and horrid

About €60 and horrid

Fortunately, the majority of hole-nesting birds readily use artificial nestboxes. In the ’18/’19 winter I’ve put up about ten in likely looking sites.

There are a huge range of nestboxes available to purchase, though many are pretty hopeless and are little more than garden ornaments. A nest box has to fulfil a couple of relatively simple functions:

  • Protection to birds and nestlings from predators
  • Protection from extremes of weather, in particular rain and excess temperatures

The physical and environmental protection is best served by using nestboxes made from robust materials, like 1″ thick wooden planks. However, because of the high rainfall on Ardnamurchan, I’ve opted to use boxes made from a composite cement and sawdust mix. These are marketed under trade names like Woodcrete (from Schwegler) and Woodstone (from Vivara).

Woodcrete and Woodstone

Nestbox #4

Nestbox #4 – 32mm oval

If you mix sawdust and cement in the correct proportions (apparently about 3.5:1) and press the mixture into a suitable mould you end up with a hard stone-like material that offers excellent protection to birds and nestlings.

Woodcrete and Woodstone are essentially indistinguishable in terms of suitability for nest box construction and – for all I know – might come out of the same factory. They are completely impervious to water and, being stone-like, offers excellent insulation from excess temperatures. It won’t ever rot (and usually comes with a ten year guarantee) and it should be immune to even the most determined woodpecker.

Schwegler manufactures nestboxes from Woodcrete in a variety of designs. The majority of UK suppliers appear to have had low or non-existent stock for the last year. I therefore ended up buying Vivara boxes which are sold by CJ Wildlife and other suppliers, again in a wide range of designs.

I purchased a mix of nestboxes with 28mm, 32mm and 32mm oval entrance holes. These should suit the majority of hole-nesting birds in the area – blue, great and coal tits and possibly redstarts, though I have yet to see them in the area.

I’ve used Woodcrete-type boxes before and they’re widely used by biologists studying nesting birds. The front of the box is removable for easy cleaning, there are well-placed drainage holes in the base of box and they have a secure hook at the back for attachment.

Siting

All of the boxes were firmly fixed 2-4 metres up on the NNW to NNE face of birch, Scots pine or larch trees. There are few cats in the area and the partly-arboreal pine marten could reach them however high I placed them. I therefore chose positions that gave good flight lines for the birds, and reasonable sight lines for me to observe them without disturbing them.

The boxes will need annual cleaning and this is much easier if they’re not high above the ground.

The boxes are about 6kg in weight … another very practical justification not to place them too high.

Nestbox #5

Nestbox #5

Apparently the only way you know if there are too many boxes in an area is if a proportion are always unused. I’ve put up 10 in about 2 acres, with the option of increasing this if needed.

At the time of writing (late March) birds are establishing their territories. Some of the boxes were being irregularly visited, but it was too early for any to be occupied.

Nestbox #2

Nestbox #2


 

B8007 – the road to everywhere

The B8007 is the sinuous single track road linking the villages of Salen and Kilchoan on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. This 19 mile, often tortuous, tarmac strip does a lot to protect the remoteness and largely unspoiled environment of the peninsula. Particularly at the eastern end, the combination of the encroaching oakwoods and numerous switchback corners discourages undue haste.

B8007 from Salen to Kilchoan

B8007 from Salen to Kilchoan

By day the scenery along the B8007 changes from the slightly claustrophobic mossy, verdant oakwoods clinging to the shore of Loch Sunart via windswept open moorland around Ben Hiant to panoramic, yacht-studded seascapes towards Mull or Eigg and Rum.

Or vice versa if you’re driving from west to east.

The straightest piece of road between Salen and Ardslingnish

The straightest piece of road between Salen and Ardslingnish

At night you drive down a narrow monochrome cone of light with the reflections from road-edge marker posts and passing places stretching off into the gloom. If you’re lucky you’ll see large stags down off the hill serenely melting away into the shadows as you pass.

If you’re unlucky you might hit one.

The A861 aperitif

Even before reaching Salen, visitors approaching from the Corran ferry will have already completed about 8 miles of single track A861 from Strontian. This starts almost immediately you get to the cattle grid at the eastern boundary of Strontian, and is a marked contrast to the long, fast straights of the two-lane A861 stretching across Ardgour.

These 8 miles generally have pretty good sightlines, ample passing places – more on these later – and are a reasonably gentle introduction to the main course. This is the loch-hugging stretch between Salen and Ardslingnish.

Salen to Ardslingnish

This part of the B8007 has some poor surfaces (though there’s worse to look forward to above Loch Mudle), the tightest bends, the narrowest corners and often non-existent sightlines.

Going east to west there’s trees, rocks and hills on your right and – in places – a low wall and water on you left. Here and there are gaps in the wall. Some of these are disconcertingly car-sized. The road stays close to the loch, sometimes at sea level and other times rising above it as it negotiates the contours.

After passing the Natural History centre at Glenmore the road rises to Ardslingnish and the views open out. There is a good place to park above Camas nan Gaell with great views across to Ben Hiant and Mull. This is a dependable place to spot eagles from, both golden and sea, either on the hill in front or the western ridges of Beinn Bhuidhe (“Behind you” as they say in panto).

B8007 and Beinn an Leathaid

B8007 and Beinn an Leathaid

After Ardslingnish the road remains single track, but it’s less tortuous and – with very few trees – you can see what’s coming and prepare accordingly.

Single track with passing places

As the title of this post states, the B8007 is the road to everywhere. It’s the only road.

Therefore the ~300 residents of Ardnamurchan, the estate workers, farmers, foresters and others lucky enough to live on the peninsula are, year round, the primary users. Then there are the delivery drivers, the builders, the telecoms engineers and dozens of others who are regular visitors. Finally, there is the influx of holidaymakers, the slow adventurers, the solitude-seekers and the sightseers.

Permit overtaking

Permit overtaking

At times the road can get quite busy. Fortunately the road has hundreds of passing places and it’s relatively rare for vehicles to have to reverse.

As long as you are travelling at an appropriate speed for the road – which might mean 15mph on a couple of corners – there’s usually time to see an approaching vehicle and for one or the other to pull in.

Etiquette and priorities

Which brings me to the thorny question of who has priority? Who should pull over?

Is it the vehicle closest to the passing place? Is it the car travelling less fast? Perhaps the visitor should let the local through unimpeded? Is it the gleaming Bentley or the mud-spattered Toyota Hilux?

Tricky.

Having driven the road many times it’s clear there is a hierarchy amongst the majority of the users.

For two vehicles travelling in opposite directions size appears to be the primary consideration. A car gives way to a lorry which gives way to a tractor and trailer.

However, there are some nuances to these interactions and it involves all sorts of near-instantaneous judgements being made. Locals tend to be driving faster and so often get priority even if they’re driving a Smart car (like the Sanna Spice deliveries).

Everyone – at least everyone with any sense – gives way to the mud-spattered Toyota Hilux travelling at 50mph as the driver simultaneously talks to his dog in the passenger seat, tunes the radio and phones ahead to say he’s late … 😉

Rear view mirror

Who has priority when two vehicles are travelling in the same direction?

Is it the visitor enjoying the scenery? The local returning from the Co-op in Mallaig? The Shiel bus on the way to the ferry?

By rights it’s the vehicle travelling fastest, irrespective of whether it’s a local or a visitor. This applies whatever the sizes of the vehicles.

This of course means that the mud-spattered Toyota Hilux, local driver plus dog takes priority over almost everything travelling in the same direction.

The only thing that trumps the Hilux is an ageing motorhome with three bikes obscuring the rear window, a canoe on the roof and a bumper sticker bearing the words Adventure before dementia.

Drivers of vehicles like these seem to spend their entire journey (understandably) gawping at the scenery, they never use their mirrors, have little spatial awareness and are seemingly totally deaf.

Don’t ask me how I know but my dog will back me up 😉


Notes

The road to nowhere

The road to nowhere

The title of this post is a bastardisation of “The Road to Nowhere”, a track on the 1985 Talking Heads album Little Creatures. David Byrne wrote the song and directed the video that accompanied its release.

The Road to Nowhere is also the name given to a number of incomplete highways in the US. These include Lakeview Drive on the north shore of Fontana Lake in North Carolina and the $25M Gravina Island Highway to the non-existent Gravina Island Bridge in Alaska.

Triffids

Ardnamurchan has an unwanted squatter, an evergreen cancer spreading inexorably along the shores of Loch Sunart and – triffid-like – extending its tentacles up the steep, narrow valleys leading up onto the hills.

The invasion is particularly bad around Glenborrodale, the northern bulge of Morvern and the Salen area across the loch, Resipole, Ardery and – further North – Kinlochmoidart and the area to the east of Castle Tioram.

Forestry Commission rhododendron control areas

Forestry Commission rhododendron control areas

I am, of course, talking about rhododendron. More specifically – as there are many varieties of rhododendron – I’m talking about Rhododendron ponticum.

Rhododendron invasion

Rhododendron is not a native plant to the UK, at least not since the last ice age. Its natural range includes Spain and Portugal, Bulgaria, Turkey and a large swathe of central Asia (Himalayas, Afghanistan, Northern Pakistan, India and Kashmir). Genetic evidence indicates that the plants in the UK originated from the Iberian peninsula. 

The specific name, ponticum, refers to the Pontus area south of the Black Sea where it was first identified by the botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort at the beginning of the 18th Century. It was introduced to Britain in 1763 via Gibraltar as an ornamental shrub and was popular in Victorian country estates.

Glenborrodale Castle

Glenborrodale Castle

How and where it first appeared on Ardnamurchan is unclear. It is well established in the Glenborrodale area, particularly around the castle, so it may have been introduced when Glenborrodale Castle was built and the grounds landscaped (1898-1902). Its spread east along the loch would have then been aided by prevailing westerly winds.

What does rhododendron do?

Rhododendron is highly invasive and spreads widely by seeds and suckering, thriving in the damp conditions of Ardnamurchan as well as other areas of western Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

It forms evergreen spreading bushes 2-8m high that quickly outcompete other flora by casting dense shade under the long, dark green, glossy leaves. In Spring it bears lilac, light or dark purple flowers that can appear very dramatic when it covers entire hillsides.

But don’t be seduced by this brief spectacle. Where rhododendron is out of control – as it is on Ardnamurchan – it has dramatic and damaging effects on habitat structure and native biodiversity.

This includes eliminating native plants that are unable to compete for light and the consequent loss of native animals.

The CABI Invasive Species Compendium states that “where R. ponticum is introduced in an area all plant species are threatened”.

One thing rhododendron does not do is ‘poison the soil’ as is often reported. There is no good evidence that rhododendron is allelopathic. James Merryweather has written a comprehensive article on why this piece of folklore probably became established.

Rhododendron has no natural predators. The leaves, flowers and nectar are toxic due to the presence of diterpines, known as grayanotoxins. Therefore the foliage is unpalatable to herbivores and insects. Honey produced from rhododendron flowers contains grayanotoxins and is known as ‘mad honey’. I’ve recently written about mad honey, the mechanism of toxicity and the symptoms in humans on my beekeeping website, The Apiarist.

Rhododendron control

We’ve got a lot of well-established rhododendron on our land. The evergreen leaves provide a sort of semi-attractive, year-round verdant appearance to the site. However, I can’t ignore the damage they’re doing to the flora and fauna.

One day all this will be under rhododendron

One day all this will be under rhododendron

The bushes above are not yet encroaching on the view of Loch Sunart. However, they’re ‘only’ about 3-4m tall at the moment. They will get bigger.

They have to go.

I’m going to write separately on how to control rhododendron once I’ve worked out a reliable way that works best for me. Essentially methods are either manual or chemical, or the double-whammy of both.

Manual methods include mechanical flailing with a modified tractor, so-called ‘Lever and Mulch’ or simply cutting them down with a machete or chainsaw. Chemical methods usually involve glyphosate or similar weedkillers.

The disadvantage of manual methods is that the roots will reshoot unless they are killed or removed. The disadvantage of many chemical methods is that it involves widespread use of rather indiscriminate weedkillers. The local flora is struggling already … I don’t want to make it worse.

I currently favour the ‘drill and drop’ combination of tightly focused topical application of glyphosate, followed by the tightly focused application of my Trusty Husky chainsaw 😉

Or, of course, ‘drop and drill’ which is exactly the same in reverse.

The Day of the Triffids

Triffids are a fictitious tall, mobile, prolific and highly venomous plant species from John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids. Of course, rhododendron are not triffids …

The Day of the Triffids movie poster

The Day of the Triffids movie poster

… or are they.

Rhododendron are tall, they’re mobile 1, they’re highly prolific 2 and – although they’re not venomous – they are toxic.

So perhaps the name is appropriate.

I’ve already described how they damage local flora and fauna, but are they a threat to humans?

Well, probably not, though there are several recent cases where tourists or hill walkers have become trapped in dense rhododendron ‘forest’ in the Republic of Ireland.

I’m off to do battle with this lot … if you hear shouting call the emergency services 😉

Rhododendron jungle

Rhododendron jungle


Notes

A brief but thorough account of the damage that rhododendron do to the environment can be found here.

The Day of the Triffids is the 1951 post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel by John Wyndham, a pseudonym of John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (1903-1969). The novel was made into a film of the same name in 1962. The story is well known, involving a blinding meteor shower, the eponymous carnivorous plants, survivalist groups, the Isle of White and – of interest to a beekeeper – the disablement of an armoured car by pouring honey into the fuel tank.