PLEASE NOTE THAT CORONAVIRUS MEANS WALKING IS EXTREMELY RESTRICTED TO SHORT WALKS LOCAL TO WHERE YOU LIVE – PLEASE KEEP TO THESE RESTRICTIONS, THEY ARE DESIGNED TO SAVE LIVES. IN THE MEANTIME PLEASE LOOK THROUGH THE SITE FOR IDEAS FOR WALKS WHEN ALL THIS IS OVER, ARTICLES I HAVE WRITTEN ABOUT RURAL SCOTLAND AND SOME LOVELY PICTURES OF WHAT IS WAITING FOR US ALL WHEN IT IS SAFE TO WANDER AS FAR AS WE DESIRE. STAY SAFE.
By Nick Drainey
The health giving properties of the sap from birch trees were recognised in Caithness 5,000 years ago, being drunk by humans and even cattle as the long, cold months of winter came to an end.
Now, in the forests of Perthshire, the practice of taking the clear liquid is being rediscovered and, for the first time in the UK, a commercial operation has begun to take and bottle the “birch water”.
Gabrielle and Rob Clamp use maple syrup kits bought from Canada to syphon off the natural tonic which is reputed to cleanse kidneys and liver, ease arthritis and rheumatism, and help strengthen teeth.
The process is popular in Finland and the Baltic countries and the water is drunk by celebrities including Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. But it has never been seen here on a large scale.
The history of birch water in Scotland goes back millennia. Rob, whose company Birken Tree collects around 5,000 litres of sap each year, says: “We trace it back at least 5,000 years. There was a Neolithic lady whose body was dug up in Caithness where I am from and there was evidence of some food and some of that was birch sap. In the Highlands there are records of people using it as a tonic after a long winter; giving it to babies, themselves and even cattle. It makes sense because it is so full of minerals and vitamins and it is a lean period (in nature).”
Although still known about in other countries Rob says there could be a simple reason its use died out here. “They have a very different history to us in Scotland. People were cleared away to the New World and that connection to the land was severed.”
Sat amid the birch trees of Grandtully Forest in Perthshire, Rob explains the unique taste: “I like the silkiness of it, almost creamy. There is a very slight sweetness, depending on the tree or the season. Some people compare it to melons or cucumber, it is very subtle.”
When they first tapped the sap Gabrielle said she was “excited”: “We realised the taste of fresh sap was different from the bottle we had before – we really loved it. That is why we use glass bottles to keep the taste right. And, if you warm it up slightly the flavours are more intense.”
There is usually only a three week window to gather the sap in early spring, usually March, because as the warmer months arrive it develops a bitter taste.
They collect about 5,000 litres a year but estimate that each tree only loses a tiny amount of its sap. Rob says: “We take about one per cent. We know they take up 100s of litres a day and we take about five.”
Gabrielle gave up a job as a chiropractor to concentrate on the business. And while Rob still works as a forester he aims to concentrate on their start up business full-time.
Internationally, the market is worth millions of dollars and Gabrielle and Rob were introduced to it when a friend gave them a bottle marked “Made in Finland”.
Gabrielle says: “We thought someone must make it in Scotland but no.” As a result, they became the only Scottish producers on a commercial level, selling to local delicatessens and through a wholefood distributor.
Gabrielle adds: “There are lots of vitamins and minerals, enzymes and amino acids. There is xylitol as well which is good for the teeth.
“A lot of people ask if it is (normal) water because it is called birch water but no, it is pure sap.”
The sap ferments in three days so they freeze it and then pasteurise it a little to give it a longer shelf life.
Rob says: “At some point it would be nice to focus on it full time and we have launched a crowdfunding campaign.” Growing the business will mean adding flavours such as cranberry, bilberry and meadowsweet and also creating sparkling birch water which has been asked for by high end hotels and restaurants.
“We are so proud that we have been able to revive this ancestral Scottish tradition and unlock the huge potential that these native Birch trees can offer. We have injected so much energy, enthusiasm and money into our business – but now we need help to take it further.
“We’ve been so grateful for all the support we’ve received so far and hope that this campaign will encourage more people to get behind us and play an active part in the use and conservation of our native Birch woodlands.”.
Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, 31, has written about birch water on her Facebook page saying the “nutrient-dense liquid” is a “hero ingredient”.
Despite the trendy, modern feel to the product Rob insists its 5,000 year history means what they are doing is “nothing new”. He adds: “What we are saying is ‘hello, you should be drinking this stuff’.”
Hayley Bruce, Commercial Marketing Intelligence Manager at Scotland Food & Drink, said: “Scotland has a rich heritage when it comes to food and drink production and it is great to see traditional techniques being adopted in the modern world. Searching through the past for inspiration, whether looking for ancient wisdoms, indigenous ingredients or heritage produce, can open up some fantastic new opportunities for the Scottish food and drink sector.”
A version of this appeared in the July 2019 edition of The Scots Magazine
“The sea has inspired people for eons. It has been the source of myth and legend – sea monsters and kelpies – and has inspired song and music. Because whales and dolphins are from this seemingly mythical place, when you do see one it takes your breath away.”
Karl Stevens is trying to explain why whale-watching has become such a phenomenon in Scotland. Practically unknown 25 years ago, it’s now estimated to be worth around £7.8 million to the economy of the west of Scotland, drawing in around 240,000 visitors a year.
Dozens of boats operate around prime spotting sites in waters which are home to around a quarter of the world’s whale and dolphin species including bottlenose, Risso’s and common dolphins, harbour porpoises, minke whales and orca. But this summer, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust has launched a new trail to give visitors a different way of looking out for these sea creatures – from the land.
Standing at Ardnamurchan Point, one of around 25 stopping places for the new land-based trail on the West Coast, Karl, the Hebridean Whale Trail manager, explains: “A lot of people think this is something you can’t do on land, you have to be on a boat. Yes, there are definite merits for being on a boat but from an accessibility perspective and getting more people involved, land-based is a lot easier. It also means you get to some spectacular locations.
“With heights you get more distance so if you are on top of a sea cliff, you are going to get a better view over a longer distance than if you were on a boat.”
All that makes the trail world class. Karl adds: “In terms of the combination of wildlife – whales, dolphins but also seals, seabirds, plants and so on – and then the landscapes and seascapes you could argue it could be one of the best places in the world.”
One of the key things about the whale trail is that it is as much about seeing whales and dolphins as the culture that surrounds them, and the Hebrides is rich with that culture. “Every place you go to there are thousands of years of stories and tales going back to Celtic and Norse legend.”
Karl also says more modern stories such as those of fishermen and lighthouse-keepers will be retold on the trail, as well as the “slightly darker” history of whaling from the 19th and early 20th century when boats would head as far as South Georgia to harpoon the mighty creatures.
The trail is aimed at “anybody who is in the area” with Karl pointing to research saying 40% of people come to Scotland for wildlife. A significant number come for culture and the landscapes, and the whale trail “ticks all those boxes”. He says: “Anybody who is even remotely interested in those three things will get something out of the whale trail. We are trying to add to what is already there and bring the whale and dolphin stories into that.”
Karl describes whales and dolphins, and the watching of them, as an “unknown attraction” which has really only been done (aboard boats) for about 25 years. Karl says: “People think of charismatic species in Scotland; red deer, salmon, seals and so on. Then there are the mythological species – you have the Loch Ness Monster. People still come knowing that the Loch Ness Monster is likely to be non-existent and go out in the vain chance that they might catch a glimpse of the beast.” Whales and dolphins, he points out, are actually there.
Visitors can hope to see “a breaching humpback jumping out of the water” because they have already looked at clips on TV or the internet. “You may see that and be incredibly lucky. But for the most part it is those special moments when you are looking out and catch a glimpse of a fin or something moving in the water. That might hold your attention a little longer and you realise that fin is attached to a porpoise, or a dolphin, or even a minke whale. It is to try to get more people to spend more time looking out to the sea to make the most of what is out there.”
Karl says awareness of the sea and what is in it has been rising in recent years, particularly after the BBC’s Blue Planet documentary series. As a result, he hopes that a spin-off of the whale trail will be that people report incidents of pollution, whether that be a patch of oil, something floating on the surface, or even something entangled in an old net.
“The ethos of the whale trail is to tap into the connectivity between the sea and the land that has been there for thousands of years, and because of the Blue Planet effect we are starting to reconnect. People are more aware of the stuff that is floating and what to do about it and that is very important.”
The trust, and other organisations, already survey the seas to try to gauge numbers of whales and dolphins but the picture is currently unclear, according to Karl. And he hopes with more reports of sightings, already possible through the trust’s Whale Track app, there can be a greater understanding of any issues and problems.
He says: “It is a mixed picture, for example last year we got more common dolphins but other species seem to be doing less well. The past couple of summers have not been great for basking sharks but we don’t know if that’s because they are not there or that we have just not seen them.
“That is a key element of the whale trail – if we can get more people out there we will get a significantly better understanding of what is out there.”
It’s hard to believe this year is the sixth time I’ve visited with my family. Very glad to see they do a nature audit to check all that light and noise isn’t having an adverse effect on the wildlife – and even more glad to see that this year, as in the last few years, all the tickets sold out.
In fact, this year was the first time we’ve struggled to get tickets – and we buy them months in advance. That and the fact there are so many other outdoor light shows which have sprung up around Scotland is a testimony to the brilliance of the idea and Pitlochry is reaping the benefits with an extended tourist season bridging the gap between the end of the summer and Christmas.
The Enchanted Forest isn’t run by some giant multi-national with endless funds – the venture was a real gamble which paid off. It might not have done. But it’s the kind of entrepreneurship we need in tourism in Scotland.
It galls me travelling around Scotland at this time of year and finding so many tourist information centres closed – especially the ones which sell postcards of exquisite wintry scenes in summer. And yes, it’s hard when it’s public money to justify opening centres when the tourists aren’t there in numbers. But to misquote Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, if you open them, they will come – the Enchanted Forest shows it’s possible.
VisitScotland also say that generally people look for their info online these days. And that is true. But another trend is the rising number of motorhomes on our roads. We have a lot more folk driving around, doing that kind of footloose, where shall we stay tonight kind of holiday – just look at the success of the North Coast 500. And while they’ll have certain must-sees such as Glencoe on their itinerary, there’ll be plenty of times when they’re just meandering from A to B.
And if you drive through a town with a tourist information centre, you might well stop even if you’ve never heard of the place because a centre means there must be touristy things to do. So you might go up that walk by the waterfalls, then stop for some lunch, then tell your friends about it – all those pics on personal social media are the online bits that really work to spread the word.
Scotland is promoted brilliantly for whisky and golf. But now we know we don’t have to write-off the October to Easter period, we need our tourism experts to find ways of making Scotland a genuinely year-round destination to benefit the cafés, pubs, shops and campsites as much as the whisky companies and golf clubs.
The battle to save red squirrels from extinction is being won across Scotland with conservationists moving the well-loved creatures to new homes, creating strongholds for the threatened animal.
There is also an increase in sightings of the furry rodents in areas where woodlands have been improved but charities warn that more needs to be done to secure their future.
In the UK, red squirrels are now rare with only an estimated 138,000 individuals left. Their numbers have been decimated by the reduction of forests to isolated remnants, and by disease and competition from the introduced non-native grey squirrel.
Last month, (Nov) a project by Trees for Life relocating red squirrels to their old forest homes in northwest Scotland reported success in new populations of the animals.
The conservation charity has been reintroducing the squirrels to suitable native woodlands where the species has been lost in the Highlands. Because reds travel between trees and avoid crossing large open spaces, they can’t return to these isolated forest fragments on their own, meaning they were moved by hand. As well as helping red squirrels, increasing numbers benefit native forests, as the animals collect and bury thousands of tree seeds each autumn, which are often forgotten by them and can then take root.
Becky Priestley, Trees for Life’s Wildlife Officer, said: “Early indications are that this could be a real wildlife success story. The new squirrel populations are not only flourishing and breeding in their new homes, they are also starting to spread out into new areas – with squirrels being sighted as far as 15 kilometres away.”
The project’s initial relocations took place between the springs of 2016 and 2017, with the first 33 squirrels from Inverness-shire and Moray released at Shieldaig in Wester Ross. This was followed by 22 more released at the Coulin Estate next to Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve near Kinlochewe, and 30 at Plockton, which is owned by landowners including The National Trust for Scotland.
Animal welfare is central to the project and squirrels are transported in special nest boxes, lined with hay and containing food and apple for hydration. Only small numbers are removed from any site, to leave donor populations unaffected. Health checks ensure that diseased animals are not introduced to new populations.
The boxes are fixed to trees at the reintroduction sites, with grass-filled exit holes allowing the squirrels to leave when ready. Food is provided for several months as the squirrels get used to their new habitat.
Annual monitoring involves observations of feeding signs, drey surveys and sightings records. Community groups are used to report sightings, monitor the squirrels, and carry out supplementary feeding.
Red squirrels occur throughout most of mainland Scotland, with the largest populations in the Highlands, and in Dumfries and Galloway. The Scottish population – estimated at 120,000 individuals – has increased slightly in recent years, but the animal’s range and population would have been far larger before the loss of most of the Caledonian Forest.
Trees for Life now has evidence of the relocated squirrels breeding two years in a row at Shieldaig, and also of breeding at Plockton.
Natural recolonisation of other areas appears to have begun from Shieldaig. During 2016, the squirrels spread throughout much of the habitat, with one sighting 13 kilometres away beyond Loch Torridon. There have been further sightings in the same area during 2017, and others two kilometres further away, at Inveralligin.
Trees for Life’s Red Squirrel Reintroduction Project aims to expand significantly the numbers and range of the red squirrels and this autumn further releases have taken place around Lochcarron, with squirrels going to the remote Reraig peninsular and to Attadale.
Meanwhile, feeder box monitoring and camera trapping carried out in Countesswells and Foggieton Woods, near Aberdeen, indicates a good future for red squirrels in that part of the country.
The work by Forest Enterprise Scotland (FES) and Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS) indicates that red squirrel numbers in the area are increasing – and that the woods are free from non-native grey squirrels.
As well as following best practice to manage the woodlands for red squirrels, other measures taken include minimising the amount of large clearfell sites and maximising the tree species favoured by red squirrels.
Matt Nuttall, SSRS Conservation Officer, said: “We are extremely pleased by the results of our monitoring work from Countesswells and Foggieton Woods, as it demonstrates that the hard work of all the project partners, our volunteers, and members of the public over several years has had a real positive impact on red squirrels.”
Earlier this year the Scottish Wildlife Trust was awarded a grant of £2.46 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels – Developing Community Action project.
Over the next five years Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels will enlist many more volunteers from communities to carry out practical work to protect and strengthen the strongholds of the animal.
Book festivals are a great place to escape to; immersing yourself in a favourite, or completely new, subject can be just the recharge your batteries need from time to time.
So I was completely hooked when the Wigtown Book Festival decided to mix words, which as a writer I am fascinated by, with that greatest of pursuits, walking.
At this year’s extravaganza of literature – running from September 22 to October 1 – a series of “Walking & Talking” events are taking place. These include James Canton recreating ancient Wigtownshire by taking festival goers on a walk from Torhouse Stone Circle.
Authors Robert Twigger and Jessica Fox will walk through the forest inspired by Casual Games for Casual Hikers by poet Harry Giles – a book and map of things to do on a gentle walk from telling stories to rules for kicking pebbles, ways to name mountains to maps to draw when you get home.
Meanwhile, Sara Maitland, who has used her life as a hermit in Galloway as the inspiration for much of her writing, will take folk on a silent walk – getting people to contemplate their surroundings.
Another outdoor experience comes from author and farmer Rosamund Young who will bring to life her cult book The Secret Life of Cows on a local dairy farm.
What all these events have in common is something walkers will appreciate but maybe take a while to realise. Certainly with myself the achievement of getting to the top of a summit, along a glen or around a loch was all I was thinking about when I first went walking.
But there is more to it than that. You nearly always feel better after a walk, even when you get soaked to the skin you can feel enlivened at the end of the day. There is also the side effects which come from being with others – one university in Scotland introduced a scheme where all meetings involving two people had to be conducted while walking around the campus, the reason being it made folk more productive.
So, there really are many reasons to get out walking other than the view. And one of them is to take in a book festival. Find out more about the Wigtown Book Festival at: www.wigtownbookfestival.com