bat detection

Threave (a National Trust Property near Castle Douglas) is a Bat Reserve and you can follow carefully laid out bat-trails. I do so, having borrowed a heterodyne bat detector from reception.

Following the signs in daytime, when all seven species of bats are in torpor, you get the feel of the sorts of places in which these creatures like to rest. A sign lets you know a roost is close-by.

A wet day – it’s easy to understand staying inside. But at night, where do they get in and out? I am given permission to look inside the potting shed, and at 2.45 pm look up in the rafters for signs of brown long-eared bats. The bat detector is quiet, no echolocation occurring. Of course, they are not hunting but are asleep. I can hear a fly, and an occasional walkie-talkie as gardeners do their work.

Between the sieves, in the corner of the white-washed shed, there is a quiet sign of bats’ presence – droppings caught in gossamer, testing the strength of spider silk.

A spider stands guard above this unsolicited harvest in her nets.



A Threave Bestiary

I am sketching out a bestiary, based on a species count of animals in Threave House near Castle Douglas. Only a few can be shown here.

There is a pride of lions, sometimes only  their paws evident from under the furniture. Perhaps we, the visitors, are being stalked.

There is a disparate pack of dogs, finding diverse places to reside.

One canine is partially visible in the blue and white china cabinet.

Others are busy with a favourite quarry.

Eagles are arrayed in reflective and imperious stances

while horses bend as they gallop, or rest after the chase.

Looking upwards, you can see a salmon leap

and close attention is rewarded by a pair of swallows.

Domesticated animals each find their situation

while others take opportunities as they can.

Some are hard to classify, with nondescript forms.

Only with expert assistance, could I detect bats at roost – around a Chinese good luck sign in the Blue and White ceramics cabinet.

Survey conditions on a July day were wet; the duration was three hours covering each floor of the hunting lodge. Species included stag, cattle, shells (conch, scallop) eagles, dogs (terriers, hounds, lapdogs, retrievers, spaniels), hare, heron, horses, lions, linnet, sphinx, salmon and other fish, lion, butterfly and other insects, sheep, goat, mermaid, bittern, rabbit, cats, swans, snake, swallows, linnet, pochard, trout. An ornithological hotspot (courtesy of Donald Watson)  yielded mallard, pochard, goldeneye, dipper, grey wagtail, hen harriers, grouse, teal, shelduck, tufted duck, snow bunting, goosanders, puffins, gannets, great crested grebe, barn owl, red grouse, black and grey geese, herring gull, dotterel. A second hotspot in the basement yielded frog, tawny owl, blue tit, slug, bee, roe deer, wasps, ladybird, herons, dragonfly, red squirrel.

Threave Estate is an exceptionally diverse Estate in the care of the National Trust for Scotland. A Scottish Baronial House was built as a shooting lodge for what is now a 1,600-acre estate supporting farming, forestry, horticulture, wildlife conservation and outdoor recreation.

Importantly, Threave is the first Bat Reserve in Scotland, with 7 species of bat: Bandit pipistrelle, Soprano pipistrelle, Daubenton’s, Brown long-eared, Noctule, Natterer’s and Whiskered (the last species is very rare in Scotland).

My grateful thanks to staff at Threave and to the organisations facilitating this project with a visual arts award:

Composition (Palm & Coconut)

This post is about a series of drawings currently on show in The Forest Bookstore in Selkirk. 

A milk machine can afford over-worked farmers rest at lambing time – an investment that allows precise feeding to lambs up to weaning and saves much tired time late in the evening mixing milk and hand-feeding lambs. I started to draw Lac-Tek, this electric mummy, on the back of the sack in which the ewe-milk replacer is supplied.

On the front of the sack, the composition of the ewe-milk is printed, including Vegetable Oil (Palm & Coconut)

A healthy looking lamb is pictured next to the Analytical Constituents

I wonder how Lac-Tek produces warm milk from so many teats at once


and notice the complacency with which lambs treat the teat-boards

The surrounding sounds in the lamb-shed include bleats, suckles and a gentle whir as Lac-Tek re-fills. Scenes of razed areas of rainforest from Ecuador crept in from the back of my mind.  Intricate and biodiverse tropical trees replaced by small straight lines of palms, in corporatised monoculture. Look here for yourself. I remember birds from Payamino Community land.

Border lamb becomes all the more of a complex product. Precious life, to be considered carefully before consumption.

How to complete this drawing? I hear about the progress of the last-born lambs of the season, how one hogg has  to be taught to care for her new lamb but another took to motherhood with enthusiasm. She protected her lamb, stamping both feet in its defence. In one of the pens a chubby lamb stands with his mam, he is ready to go out into the field.

Another then I remember a souvenir from the Holy Land,  beyond the Wall in Bethlehem. Another kind of border sheepscape found in a crib factory, made from olive wood.

Notes to accompany this work can be downloaded as a pdf:  lacketinfo

eggs, hens and crow

Out there its a killing time – animals feeding furiously in any break in the rain, an atmosphere of desperation as adults feed their young. Except for a small happy flock, dipping into their imported food, with soy-rich pellets.

Six hens, laying an egg each day, scratching under trees in a garden at the foot of a lambing field. It is fenced in, to stop the hens scratching up new seedlings. Accidentally locked out of their coop yesterday – the crop of chickens’ eggs has disappeared. Who took them?


Rat? I’m not good at observing rats. If I am close to one – captured in the ‘humane trap’ – I can’t look him in the eye. We are about to drown him.


Badgers? who leave a trail of digging, rootling for worms – but they are held back the fence, electrified.


Crows? I begin to think it was crow, floppy winged, tightly patrolling the hill-side.


Later, sitting above the hen run on the hill, I see a crow fly down from the poplars, and feed on organic corn and layers pellets.

up with the lark

Slight frost, sun hot already, a week of this. Two larks hopping on grass clumps, beneath the old heather. A bobbing rise together, a few metres high. Then they land and keep looking at the grass.

I watch another lark rise, catching the sun on its front as it winds upwards.

Further along the field, a couple of blackface ewes stood vigilantly by the wall: early twin lambs mewling, piercing the air with the same tone and pitch as a baby.

couldn’t make a sandwich out of that

A visit to the Natural History Museum in London to see the Hummingbird Cabinet

As I drew, I found passers-by were echoing my own reflections. There was much curiousity about these stilled birds, some of which may now be extinct.

they are all real but they are dead… look at these – yes I seen them before … they are all diferent! yeah, that’s what he collected … I LOVE that one … birds after birds after birds after …

teeny weeny birds … look at the nests! … so many of them … superbe!

I was not the only person to crane my neck to look into the case – looking at tiny nests with nestlings, the fine crests and flashes of remaining iridescence from these two hundred year-old birds.

someone just killed a load of hummingbirds … oh my goodness, the size of them, they are tiny! they are all hummingbirds! … as small as butterflies … I feel ever so sorry for those birds … this one is disturbing I have to say .. do you remember this? I came to see it fifty years ago … I don’t know if that is amazing or disgusting … well it’s old isn’t it, a different time … I wonder what colour that would have been when he first saw them … you can see why they put them in hats, can’t you? …

you couldn’t make a sandwich out of that  couldya?

I took a break, for lunch.

(This piece forms part of the Fashioning Feathers exhibition at the Royal Alberta Museum in Canada)


Walking up the track in a stretch of euroforest, I start to take in the extent of storm damage

It is staggering, but we are adjusting to the hill’s new shape.

The western section was systematically felled last spring; last month it was moulded into lines, drains and brash-heaps ready for re-planting. The heavy machinery and oil-lorries have left their tracks and laid bare the earth again. The river became full of silt in the heavy rain.

In taking its crop of trees last year, euroforest exposed stands that had been protected. The series of storms over the winter took their toll and the most recent hurricane in January has left a wake.

It is hard to make sense of it: roots in the air, some trunks snapped and still vertical, others lying horizontal. Many, many hectares of damage.

I want to go in and have a closer look: it is a jungle, I need a machete. I cannot get through.

Getting as far as I can, details become apparent. My mind makes some kind of pattern of things. No such thing as a balance of nature – this is a temporary rearrangement.

The new territory is more accessible to others, who are taking advantage of its possibilities.

A pair of crossbills come over – checking me out? Warning me off? Red male, green female; they look around and then start to strip bark. Perhaps they are nesting. I move too suddenly, they fly off.

I walk on – listening out, I become aware that I move through the forest with a bow-wave of avian alarm calls.

Click here to see previous work on Cross-bills with Hayden Lorimer.


In the cold, whooper swans arrived on the loch. The sheep also come close to the shore, the animals grazing alongside each other.

Today, the swans glided over: forward swan calling, chorus responding.  I was worried about disturbing them, now I am worried they are seeing me off. I get ready to run.

Instead, we spend time just looking at each other, their curiousity and mine matched.

UK swallows have reached Durban!

South Africans are welcoming migrant barn swallows back this weekend: in Durban a party is planned next to reedbeds at Mount Moreland. It will be a spectacle at dusk, as they come to roost – millions of whirling birds, only ever seen in small groups in UK.

Barn swallows are Birdlife South Africa’s Bird of the Year and you can see more about this at

The organisers add: Please join us for this unique event…  Come and see 3 million Barn Swallows gathering together at sunset, every day from 5pm until mid April. Bring a picnic, seats and binoculars. An unforgettable experience for the entire family.

Mount Moreland is close to the new King Shaka airport, soon to be used by international delegates for the United Nations Climate Change Conference.  Reflecting on this, I wrote the article below for Barn Swallow South Africa magazine.

This follows an earlier post on swallows in the Borders.

“Populus tremula, Tweedsmuir”

Last week, I took a couple of aspen cuttings to Dundee Botanical Gardens. They will spend a year or two in the nursery of the Native Plant Communities Unit (see

Their new labels announced them: Populus tremula Tweedsmuir.

They will add genetic diversity to the collection, and are two of the eight I produced after collecting roots on the A701 (see

Specimen 19760128DA in the Native Garden also has expansion plans. I map out lines of runners and ramets radiating from his/her diamond marked trunk:

The ramets confusingly do not necessarily have aspen-shaped leaves. At their tops, closest to the light, the leaves are largest and pointed with round stems – no quaking here.

Indeed, a determined advance by 19760128DA, who is using the right to roam.

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