Fishing for litter


This article first appeared on February 5, 2017 in the Sunday Post

By Nick Drainey

It’s a load of rubbish but for the fishing industry and consumers the discarded waste being piled up at harbours across Scotland is good news.

Fishing boats once dumped the junk they hauled up in their nets back overboard, including waterproof clothes, oil drums, machinery and even sleeping bags. But now they bag the refuse and take it back to port to be disposed of.

And the “Fishing For Litter” scheme has just reached the milestone of pulling 1,000 tonnes of potentially dangerous refuse from the seabed.

Jimmy Buchan, who starred in the BBC TV series Trawlermen, documenting the perilous work of fishermen, said: “When we first started it, we would maybe lift a tonne of rubbish in a trip but I know it is working because now we hardly fill the bottom of a bag. The good we have done means that we are having an environmentally positive effect – we are doing a great service to the marine environment.”

It has been estimated that marine litter costs the Scottish fishing industry around £10 million a year, the equivalent of five per cent of the total revenue of the affected boats, which can suffer damaged nets or propellers snagged with rubbish.

Mr Buchan, who trawls from Peterhead, said: “When you go fishing anything that gets into the net – a dumped sleeping bag is a classic – immediately closes up the meshes. When you are trawling the net is skipping along the sandy seabed and the silt goes through the net but because of this blockage it starts to build up rapidly and that changes the geometry of the net. A few buckets of sand is an extremely heavy weight tugging on the net and it stops you fishing.”

The Fishing For Litter project was introduced to Scottish waters by KIMO UK, an Aberdeenshire-based organisation linking local authorities around the coast of the North Sea, in 2005.

Special bags are given to skippers to store the rubbish before returning it to port. Despite the 1,000 tonne landmark being reached by more than 200 Scottish boats, the plan is going to continue to make the seas healthier fish stocks.

The situation Scotland’s fishing fleet found itself in dates back decades, according to Mr Buchan, 57. He said: “When I was a boy in Peterhead the town’s rubbish was dumped at sea. There was any area at the back the port where all the council carts tipped the rubbish over a wall and into the sea and the tide washed it away. So as a boy my perception was that the sea was a dumping ground.”

Mr Buchan said the coming of plastics changed things as previously the bulk of what had been dumped, such as paper and cardboard, broke down in the sea, unlike more modern materials. He added: “That practice was phased out but if you grow up thinking if you want to dump something you dump it over the side, when you go to sea that is the practice. If you multiply that by a thousand boats all of sudden you have turned your fishing ground into a dumping ground.

“It was becoming a problem so when this scheme opened I immediately thought it was fantastic. I wasn’t looking at becoming an environmentalist or a green person, I could see commercial viability if it started to get rubbish out of the sea. It is going to affect my fishing opportunities and therefore make me better.”

Mr Buchan says the fish which now come out of the sea are healthier as well because they are not swimming in as much plastic and other pollutants. He said: “Chefs who I supply are over the moon because they see that they are always getting quality fish. If we have a disturbed haul, with silt and mud, the quality of the fish we do catch is affected as well.”

The scheme has funding until 2020, which Mr Buchan said was “great”. “We don’t get paid for it, it is purely for the love of the job and the commercial benefit.”

KIMO Chair Cllr Raymond Christie said the scheme was working well and reaching the milestone of 1,000 tonnes was a “great achievement”. He said: “I would like to thank all of the crews and harbour staff who took part for their fantastic efforts to help protect our precious marine environment and shoreline.”

Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham, said the scheme supported the Scottish Government’s Marine Litter Strategy. She said: “Marine litter is a very serious issue both for Scottish seas and across the global oceans.  It is shown to harm wildlife and the natural environment whilst impacting on our marine industries through damage to subsea and coastal infrastructure, vessels and fishing gear.

“I would like to congratulate KIMO on their success in reaching this milestone. I would also like to take the opportunity to commend those fishermen who are participating and making a real difference in cleaning up Scotland’s seas.”

Stewart Stevenson, MSP for Banffshire and Buchan Coast, added: “Our north-east coastline provides a livelihood for thousands of people, as well as providing a habitat for countless species of marine lifestyle.  Therefore, it’s our duty to protect it and I applaud our local fishermen for going above and beyond to remove as much litter from our waters.”

Seen and herd

A version of this article first appeared in December 2016 in the Australian newspaper Scottish Banner

By Nick Drainey

Scotland’s only herd of reindeer are having a rest after Christmas and the Cairngorms is without a doubt the best place to spot them.

They are not seen in the sky pulling a sleigh but Britain’s only herd of the hoofed animal thrive on the 10,000 acres of sub-arctic tundra found high in the mountains.

A walk up the Cairn Gorm offers great views, especially the shattered rocks of Coire an t-Sneachda but the first thing often mentioned by visitors when they return to the Glenmore Forest below is the sight of reindeer.

They were introduced in 1952 by Mikel Utsi and his wife Dr Ethel Lindgren, 800 years after they had been hunted to extinction in Scotland.

The couple had visited the Cairngorms on their honeymoon and Mr Utsi said afterwards: “Looking across Rothiemurchus Forest to the Cairngorms from the railway bridge at Aviemore on a cold morning in April 1947, I was instantly reminded of reindeer pastures in Lapland… species of ground, rock and tree lichens, which are elsewhere the chief food of reindeer, were plentiful and of little use to other animals.”

Mr Utsi, a reindeer herder from Sweden thought the animals would be a good source of food in the post-war years. However, the public did not share the same appetite to eat the hardy animals as their Scandinavian cousins.

Nevertheless, Mr Utsi grew the herd from a start with two bulls and five cows brought over from Sweden, and there are now 150 of them, visible on the mountainsides. Others can be seen in paddocks next to a visitor centre at a cottage which serves as the base for Cairngorm Reindeer, the operation founded by Mr Utsi.

Looking up to the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms, Imogen Taylor, a reindeer herder based at the centre, says they are “really easy to keep because they just run around on mountains and you don’t have to do anything with them”.

She adds: “They were native here and the only reason they are not any more is because we over hunted them so they obviously played a role in the ecology.

“Mr Utsi was going to use them as a meat source because it was just after World War Two. But people here didn’t want to eat them so he had to think of a different way – people wanted to come and see them, so it grew from there.

“We now run a guided tour every day and their whole purpose is tourism.”

But how do you keep track of these semi-wild animals? Ms Taylor says: “Technically they could go anywhere they want but the Cairngorms is the only place in the UK where we have sub arctic habitat left so they really need that habitat and wouldn’t want to go into the forest – they are not going to Glasgow because there is no grazing there. The habitat keeps them there because it is the right habitat, in the same way that you don’t get red deer wandering around town.”

That is why they are such a regular sight for walkers in the mountains. On a walk up Cairn Gorm from they can be seen in Coire Cas when the skiers aren’t around and don’t even seem bothered by the funicular railway trundling past.

The “Windy Ridge Path” leads you up to the top of the railway and the Ptarmigan Station. Here, you can take a breather from the exertions of walking up and enjoy a hot chocolate at 3,600ft. This may seem a little odd but perhaps even stranger is the sight of reindeer walking past.

The walk continues from here to the top of Cairn Gorm – the easiest of the 4,000ft mountains in Scotland to reach but with superb views. South-west is Cairn Lochan, beyond the cliffs of Coire an t-Sneachda. Slightly west of south is Ben Macdui – the second highest mountain in Scotland. To the north on a really clear day you can see as far as Morven in Caithness.

Below are the forests which surround Loch Morlich and in the foreground the habitat loved by the reindeer.

Don’t be fooled by all the signs of civilisation on the walk – the railway, ski slopes and cafe near the summit – it is dangerous terrain and claims human lives every year when Arctic conditions prevail. Walkers in winter have to make sure they are fully equipped for bad weather and can use a map and compass, as well as ice axe and crampons

But for reindeer these conditions are ideal. Even in winter they flourish thanks to their thick coats which provide such insulation that they don’t melt the snow when they lie down. At the same time, extra wide, splayed hooves enable reindeer to spread weight on soft snow to prevent them sinking.

The reindeer can, however, be seen away from the Cairngorms in the run up to Christmas when they are used to pull sleighs for Santa when he visits towns across Scotland.

Ms Taylor adds: “That is their job – each individual reindeer does about five or six events a year over the two months of November and December.”

Now, however, they are in a more natural habitat, enjoying a rest.

Mountain Man

This article first appeared in December 2016 in The Scots Magazine

By Nick Drainey

As Hamish MacInnes looks out from his house, below the conical summit of the Pap of Glencoe, he can still remember the days when volunteers wore Wellington boots and carried storm lanterns as they risked their lives helping the lost or injured in the mountains.

That was 55 years ago when he founded the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team after realising the brave group of shepherds, fishermen, landlords and climbers needed better equipment.

MacInnes, now 85, says: “We started off the team to try to get funds because the shepherds were going up the hill in their Wellington boots … and they only had the old storm lanterns, it was really primitive. These people went out on to the hill with no motive but to help people, they used to have to go round on a bicycle to call people out when people were lying injured on the hill.

“These shepherds and people in the team weren’t climbers – initially there was only one other person in the 15 strong team other than me who was a climber. It was vital that we got some money so we could get them climbing boots, anoraks and headlamps. We also had to get walkie talkies for communication.”

The mountaineer says equipment available to rescue teams has improved but the nature of the call outs is basically the same. Recalling a rescue in the early days of the Glencoe team, he says: “We often had to work out where people had gone. We came across a car and there was a lot of good technical climbing gear in it. By doing some Sherlock Holmes work we thought back to the day before which was misty and drizzly – a climber doesn’t go soloing on a hard route in these conditions.

“We realised he must have gone somewhere that was relatively easier but could get progressively harder if he went off the route a little bit. That is exactly what happened because we found his body down at the side of the scree on the west face of Aonach Dubh. He had been on a climbing course with me and we did quite a few routes together – he was a talented climber, a Chinese climber.

“It shows you that back then people wandered off.”

Coping with death is something MacInnes has lived with all his life, in mountain rescue as well as expeditions to the Himalayas, the Alps, New Zealand and South America.

He says: “Chris Bonington and I have both got over 50 friends each killed, that is a lot of friends. It reminds me of my father who was in Passchendaele and his whole platoon was wiped out – he was the only person left alive and was posted as being killed. It runs in the family.”

The confrontation with tragedy in the mountains also led MacInnes to develop cutting edge equipment used by mountaineers and rescuers across the world. It began after he invented the first all-metal ice axe in the late 1940s. He developed this until a version was created in the 1960s using aluminium alloy shafts.

MacInnes recalls: “The reason I invented it was that I was climbing in Ben Nevis one day. I had a police radio because of doing rescues and the police radioed to say they had three people missing up in the region of Zero Gully. We went off at night with torches and we came across these bodies – all three were killed and their wooden ice axes were broken. I realised then that I had an all metal ice axe which was pretty much indestructible and these people were getting killed because their ice axes were not up to standard. I made a resolution then to manufacture them.”

After finding a drop forger in Manchester they went into production and their use was to revolutionise the climbing world, not only improving safety but providing lighter equipment. MacInnes said: “We were making 1,000s of them and they were going all over the world, the RAF, for example, decided to buy them.”

For MacInnes the invention and manufacture of stretchers suitable for use on difficult terrain such as mountains was also a key factor in improving rescues.

He got the idea when using a “Thomas” stretcher with the newly formed Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team on the Aonach Eagach ridge. After a night of searching they found a young woman who had fallen and was lying in a very precarious spot, suffering a fractured spine and head injuries.

MacInnes says: “We had got to this girl and she was in a very dangerous situation, in fact her legs were dangling over the edge of quite a big drop, it was a kind of Charlie Chaplin situation. We had to get her off and we only had the Thomas stretcher which was good for its day but you couldn’t get it in to difficult places and the team agreed something had to be done.”

MacInnes went on to design the first stretcher which came apart and had wooden skis attached. Further modifications were made and the first folding stretcher was invented – quicker to carry out to an injured climber as well as being easier to lift back, meaning there was a better chance of saving lives. Since those early days the MacInnes Stretcher has been used for rescues across the world as well as in conflict zones such as Afghanistan. An MK7 version is the latest and MacInnes, although now retired from the rescue team, shows no sign of stopping work. He has teamed up with Richard Glanville, who makes carbon fibre yacht masts in Inverness who has created a material which is not only lightweight but also strong.

He says: “I am working on a new stretcher. It has now developed to a stage where it is an incredible work of art and is incredibly strong.”

Despite the inventions, MacInnes has always said they didn’t make him a rich man. Rather, his income came from the world of film where his expertise was used in productions ranging from The Mission with Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons to the James Bond film The Living Daylights with Sean Connery.

Work on the Eiger Sanction in 1975 is credited as some of the most dangerous location shooting ever done. MacInnes enabled a camera crew to work on the north face of the Eiger and he developed a mutual respect with the director and star, Clint Eastwood.

MacInnes says: “Clint was a great bloke. He did all his stunts, he wasn’t a climber but he was very fit and had no fear whatsoever.”

However, the Eiger Sanction project was placed in jeopardy when MacInnes himself suffered a rare injury while climbing in Scotland.

He says: “Just prior to the Eiger Sanction I was climbing on the coast south of Edinburgh on a pinnacle called The Souter.

“It was quite a hard route and I was using a peg (to hold the rope) to reach down to get round a corner for a hold and it came out. I fell and bashed the side of my leg.”

He managed to get off the sea stack and went to the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh because of the pain. “I must have passed out because the next thing I remember was a circle of white coats around me.” He was told there was an infection in the small wound on his leg and there had only ever been three cases of it in the history of the hospital – two of which had resulted in a leg being amputated.

An operation ensued, followed by painful washings of the wound with antiseptic. Back home, he was cleaning the wound himself when Don Whillans, a rock climber and mountaineer, paid a visit. MacInnes remembers: “Don came, very concerned. He looked in and said ‘I came to get some lunch but I’ve changed my mind’.”

Looking back to the start of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team, MacInnes says the motivation to go out was always to help those in trouble. But working in a small team, often in the dark during atrocious weather, created a “terrific bond”.

MacInnes says: “Denis Barclay (a founder member of the team) said we did it because we enjoy it. But he didn’t mean enjoying the injuries people had it was the fact that it created a satisfaction in what we were doing.”

Over the Weather

This article first appeared on January 24, 2016 in the Sunday Post

By Nick Drainey

Mervyn Browne says there is “nothing you can do about it” but that hasn’t stopped him recording the weather outside his Perthshire farmhouse every day for nearly 60 years.

The 88-year-old is the longest serving member of the Climatological Observers Link – a team of weather recorders across the UK who send all their readings to the Met Office.

Every morning at 9am (GMT) sharp he notes down the readings on thermometers in his Stevenson Screen weather station, a rain gauge and a sunshine recorder, which uses a magnifying glass to burn the rays on a piece of card.

Mr Browne, who still works as a hill shepherd above Loch Tay, admits farmers have a reputation for moaning but says weather conditions can have a real impact on the 300 sheep he tends in his fields.

Gazing out almost wistfully as rain lashes down on the mountains outside, he adds: “We would prefer a dry, cold winter so sheep don’t lie all winter with a sodden fleece, which you get with a milder winter – that is debilitating.”

He adds: “Farmers are always watching the weather, that is why they complain about it. And when you have been around a few years you have the ability to forecast three or four days ahead.”

But he jokes that many “blamed him” when the weather interrupted the wedding of his grand-daughter in July.

He says: “The wedding was supposed to be held on the lochside but it was filthy summer weather. People were asking me if it was going to clear but I thought it was going to be heavy showers. So we had it in the garden in a gazebo and then they were piped down to the sheep shed for the reception.”

As with many weather watchers, Mr Browne thinks back to better days. “Wall to wall sunshine is becoming very rare – you get one day, which we call “pet” days, and then a lot of gloomy days. In 1976 it looked like it was never going to end but I think 2003 was our last really good summer.”

But the shepherd, who lives alone following the death of his wife Katie in 1983, says rain is part of life on a farm in the Scottish mountains. He says: “We had four inches in this area over two days recently but in 1951 we also had four inches in two days – there is nothing new under the sun – although that kind of rainfall is becoming more common.”

Mr Browne first became interested in weather on the family farm in Tyrone, Northern Ireland at the age of six. He says: “The year 1933 saw one of the vintage summers of the century and being in a farming community, everyone was talking about the weather and the drought. And I began to take an interest then from a childish viewpoint. Eventually, that crystallised and when I was 15 I remember asking my mother for a diary so I could record the temperature and the weather.”

He was given a job as a shepherd in Balquhidder after finishing his National Service in 1947, where he worked for a farmer called Jimmy Fergusson, who he describes as a “second father”. A love of farming, and Scotland, was cemented and a series of jobs in the area, including at a farm in Glen Lyon followed before he was able to by his farm in 1954. It was four years later that he was asked to join the Climatological Observers Link.

He has seen many changes at his home in the hamlet of at Milton of Ardtalnaig since he began officially observing the climate nearly 60 years ago. Most dramatically, annual rainfall measurements have risen from 51 inches in 1958 to 61 inches now.

As well as increased rain, and less days of continuous sunshine in summer, Mr Browne has also seen wildlife changes in the time he has spent by the loch. “We have lost a lot of small birds,” he says. “We used to get five cuckoos calling at once and now only one comes but goes away a lot earlier, Curlews are thin on the ground and pewits have disappeared.”

And it all has an impact on his sheep. He says: “The amount of rushes that are growing in places where they never grew before is quite amazing, it reduces, of course, the grazing value.”

Adam Barber, the Met Office Climate and Rainfall Network Manager, paid tribute to Mr Browne. He said: “Mr Browne is a dedicated volunteer in the Met Office Climate Network, which provides the UK with an important source of meteorological data. Mervyn has shown great commitment, providing high quality data, day in and day out throughout such a long record. Having a long data record is one of the really key aspects to maintaining a good climate record.”

Ancient glen’s pottery discovered

This article first appeared on August 8, 2016 in The Times

By Nick Drainey

What could be the oldest Bronze Age “Beaker” pottery ever found in Britain has been unearthed at an ancient glen in Argyll.

But the museum at Kilmartin Glen is having to expand to make room to show off the 4,500-year-old relics because it is already full of exhibits from prehistory.

Three pots and a food vessel were unearthed at a quarry near to the museum and another pot was found last year, but their existence has been unknown to the public until now.

Kay Owen, Redevelopment Project Officer at Kilmartin Museum, said: “As far as we are aware, there is no Beaker Pottery quite like it that has been found in Britain and which dates back that far.

“There is the age of it, but also the amount of it, it is quite remarkable … we don’t have room to display it.”

Some archaeologists think that the Beaker style of pottery was brought to Britain by migrants from continental Europe at the same time metal was introduced.

The pieces, decorated with patterns and with bands around them, were found at Upper Largie Quarry before work to remove stone started and Ms Owen said there could be more pottery to be found. She added: “The site of the quarry has been investigated but there are possibly other sites in that area.”

The pots are still being tested by archaeologists but one is thought to have cremated remains within it. “Someone would have been cremated and their remains placed in the beaker and the beaker then placed in a burial cist. We would expect it to be an important person given the extent that they have gone to and the fact that the beakers we have found are decorated.”

The glen is at the centre of the most important area for ancient monuments on mainland Scotland, with 800 ancient and prehistoric sites within 10 miles. And the significance of the pottery adds to the already impressive history in the area, including Dunadd Fort, a hill fort occupied since the Iron Age and believed to be where the Kings of Dalriada were crowned between 500 and 900AD.

Ms Owen said: “Kilmartin Glen as a whole is a really interesting and important archaeological site as far as Scotland and Britain is concerned. The sheer number of monuments here implies it was an important ceremonial place and that they came here to worship in some way. They came here to bury people as well and leave goods with them (beaker pottery).

“This is the most prominent site on mainland Scotland for pre-history and prehistoric monuments.”

Now, nearly 20 years after Kilmartin Museum opened the amount of space available to display the ancient artefacts has run out and more is desperately needed.

“We don’t have enough room. There are more and more artefacts that the museum has which we can’t display so really we need to expand the museum. These items have changed are understanding of how people have used the glen – about when we thought people were here and the activities they were carrying out.”

Not only is the museum display area full, but the store area as well, meaning the results of new excavations have nowhere to be kept in a protective environment.

As result the museum is planning a £6.7 million redevelopment which will see it expand its area for the public as well behind the scenes where a new laboratory will allow analysis and testing to take place as well as research by students and academics.

The museum hopes half the cost will come from a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund with the rest being made up with money from sponsors, supporters and members of the public.

Sharon Webb, the Director of the Museum who recently received an MBE for services to archaeology and heritage, said: “This redevelopment will secure the future of the museum, which is an important resource, not just for Argyll but the whole of Scotland. It will also help continue the archaeological work which takes place in this unique area, and safeguard this important artefact collection.”

Pottery found in Kilmartin Glen. Pic from Kilmartin Museum

Scotland the Bread

Andrew Whitley. Pic by Veronica Burke, Bread Matters

This article first appeared in January 2017 in The Scots Magazine

By Nick Drainey

At the kitchen table of a Borders farmhouse a quiet revolution is underway. Dressed in slacks and an open-necked shirt, Andrew Whitley, one of the chief protagonists, does not look like someone who wants to change the world but he believes it is possible, through a simple loaf of bread.

Mr Whitley is espousing the benefits of the Scotland the Bread project which aims to take old varieties of wheat which have been ignored for centuries, grow them organically and create loaves which are more nutritious than anything to be found on supermarket shelves.

He says: “We are looking for the most nutritious grains that will grow in this climate and the best starting point is to look for the grains that once upon a time did grow in this climate and were developed by Scottish farmers for Scottish millers and bakers.”

For the last three years Mr Whitley has been researching and bringing “heritage” specimens from seed banks across the world, including Russia, the US, France, Scandinavia and the UK. He then grows these seeds, many not used for decades but kept in case they become useful again, with the purpose of discovering the most nutritious grains that can be grown in Scotland.

“We are bringing grains home from strange parts of the world where they have lain in gene banks – notably in Russia where there were two samples, the only known samples, of grain from Patrick Shirreff.”

In the 19th century, Patrick Shirreff, who farmed near Drem in East Lothian, discovered wheat growing by the side of his land and took samples across the world. Mr Whitley adds: “He was the premiere plant farmer and breeder in the middle of the 19th century and it is probable that some of his varieties went over to Northern Europe as part of the incredible degree of exchange in seeds in those days.”

Scotland the Bread is now using a network of growers across Scotland, including himself, farmers and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, to plant the seeds he has found and see which can grow best in Scottish conditions. Once harvested, they are sent to laboratories to be tested for their nutritional qualities.

The project is now looking for more funding to allow it to develop a network of local flour and bread production across Scotland. Mr Whitley, one of seven directors of Scotland the Bread, says this would provide healthier loaves which he believes could be “part of the glue that holds communities together”.

Mr Whitley questions the need for imported modern varieties of wheat which he says are based around intensive chemical fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides. As well as having to be fortified with minerals, the modern varieties also cause health problems, Mr Whitley says: “To give you an example of how it can all go wrong due to the law of unintended consequences: there are more of the protein epitopes that are known to trigger celiac and similar responses in modern varieties than older ones.

“Heritage is healthier, it is more mineral dense, particularly in the case of iron and zinc – there are 2 billion people who don’t get enough iron and zinc in their diet and that is not just in the third world, there some population groups in the UK.

“There is every reason to look at particularly older grains to give us more of what we need from our food and doing so in a way which is less dependent, and I would argue should be completely independent, of fossil fuel derived chemical inputs.

“If we continue to rely on those we are hitching our wagon to the fossil fuel industry which we know we have to break free from.”

Mr Whitley wants to see a rethink of the “entire system” of wheat growing in Scotland, where farmers are rewarded for the nutritional quality of grain which can be used for bread production. This would allow wheat to be grown locally and then milled before being baked at local bakers.

“In Scotland we have a stark example of the dysfunctionality of the cereal growing system,” he says. “It grows a million tonnes of wheat but virtually none is used for making bread – it would only take about 150,000 of wheat to feed the entire Scottish population with all the bread it eats at the moment and yet we don’t seem to be able to do that. Farmers are being asked to grow varieties of wheat for other purposes; they are going into distilling, animal feed, starch production and increasingly to biofuels.”