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Highest per capita cases in Uist

Local public health officials have warned people living in and visiting the Western Isles to take extra precautions to protect themselves from tick bites and to avoid being exposed to Lyme disease.

Lyme Disease is a serious illness and if not caught early and treated well, it can have devastating and long lasting impacts.

The classic bullseye rash associated with the disease is not always present, making it hard to know if infection has struck.

Isabell MacInnes, Health Protection Nurse for NHS Western Isles said: “We are coming into one of the busiest times of the year for tick activity. This is important because of the diseases, such as Lyme disease, that ticks can transmit to people. We want to encourage everyone to enjoy the outdoors and all that the Western Isles has to offer. However, if you or your family are out and about, particularly in areas of rough grass and undergrowth, make sure you know how to protect yourself from being bitten and how to check each day for ticks.”

Uist has one of the highest rates of Lyme disease infections in Scotland, with 36 confirmed cases in 2021 – relative to the number of people living there, that is more than 20 times the national average. The Uist figure makes up 80% of all cases in the Western Isles, with just 8 confirmed cases in Lewis, 1 in Barra, and none in Harris.

Understanding why the Uists are so severely impacted by the disease is one of the key drivers for academic research, led by Professor Roman Biek and his team at Glasgow University.

The Glasgow University researchers working in Uist found that 1 in 15 ticks here were infected with the bacterium that causes Lyme Disease.

Tick Scotland estimates that only 20-40% of Lyme Disease cases are referred for clinical confirmation, and believes the rates of infection are higher than the reported data suggests.

OH Wildlife Festival

The Outer Hebrides Wildlife Festival is organised by the RSPB and runs islands-wide from Saturday 25 June to Saturday 2 July, with many events happening here in Uist and Barra.


Jamie Boyle, RSPB Outer Hebrides Site Manager, explained: “The Outer Hebrides has fantastic wildlife and beautiful places where islanders have lived and worked alongside nature for generations. It is thanks to this unique relationship that the islands have so many different species and that is something that should be highlighted and celebrated. Through the Wildlife Festival, participants can get closer to nature and learn more about what is on their doorstep, while also enjoying the outdoor activities planned.”

The RSPB Outer Hebrides Team have several events planned for the week of the festival: MONDAY 27 JUNE – 1.30PM – an opportunity to sample the fruits of the land at North Uist Distillery’s Downpour tasting event at Nunton Steadings. The Corncrake Calling: Land of Corncrakes exhibition will be at the Steadings for the duration of the festival.MONDAY 27 JUNE 8PM – A guided walk from Nunton Steadings to Aird, led by Alasdair
MacEachen. The walk will include local history and stories, and by starting at 8pm, there is every chance that a corncrake will be heard before the end of the two-hour session.

MONDAY 27 JUNE FROM 10AM – Wild Things Uist are hosting a Wee Wildlings Beach party for pre-schoolers and their families at Balranald, North Uist

TUESDAY 28 JUNE FROM 10AM – Balranald Walk from the RSPB visitor centre to the machair, along the shoreline and to the loch, where a variety of wading birds such as lapwing and corncrake can be found.

WEDNESDAY 29 JUNE TO SATURDAY 02 JULY – Wild Things Uist will also be running a Wildlife Discovery Trail at Cladach Kirkibost, which will feature some of the species the festival aims to highlight, such as artic terns, sundew, lapwings, otter, golden eagle, great yellow bumblebee and of course, the corncrake.

WEDNESDAY 29 JUNE FROM 10AM – Resident otter expert Martyn Jamieson will lead an Otter walk from Langass Lodge.

WEDNESDAY 29 JUNE, FROM 7.30PM- Dr. Rupert Marshall will be giving a talk on how and why birds sing. Explaining how birds are recorded in the field, how they make such amazing sounds, and what they do when they hear another song. This event will be hosted by Ceòlas and will take place in Cnoc Soilleir.

THURSDAY 30 JUNE FROM 10AM – A guided walk from RSPB Loch Druidibeg through the Land of Eagles.

THURSDAY 30 JUNE 7-9PM – An exclusive viewing of a pair of white-tailed eagles successfully raising a chick on the reserve.

THURSDAY 30 JUNE 8.30AM – Uist Sea Tours Mingulay Puffins tour departs from Eriskay and offers the opportunity to see puffins, kittiwakes, and razorbills, with a good chance of seeing whales and dolphins around the waters of the island.

THURSDAY 30 JUNE FROM 1PM FROM BERNERAY – Viv Halcrow, a local marine ecologist, will lead a seashore safari, looking at rock pools and finding out more about anemones and other creatures that live around our shorelines.

Grimsay Community Association are holding a number of events as part of the festival, two guided walks, on moorland wildflowers and on birds of prey walk, and also have a few craft activities based on the SHOAL exhibition, which is on the history of the fisherman’s ganseys. Grimsay Community Association will also be one of the venues for the RSPB Film Night, which offers a chance to see two films that explore the islanders’ connection to land, culture, and wildlife.

The Festival organisers advise that some events will require booking and ask that those interested in taking part visit the website for up to date programme listings or contact Shona MacLellan, RSPB Community Engagement Officer by email shona.maclellan@rspb.org.uk for more details.

Bill Neill

Orchids are emerging and beginning to flower, spring is turning into summer and the number and variety of insect species is increasing.

Most early butterflies will have been Green-veined Whites (the Small White seems to be extremely rare and Large Whites will arrive later in the summer). There will have been a few sightings of Small Tortoiseshell as they emerge from their overwintering hibernation and a few early migrant Red Admirals and the less common Peacock butterflies will have been seen.

Butterflies that start to appear from now on include the large and attractive Dark Green Fritillary and the Common Blue. The form of Common Blue that occurs in the Isles and the north west of Scotland is a stunner. It is larger and bluer than those in the rest of Britain. Visitors to the islands often think it’s a completely different species. If you are very lucky, you my even find much rarer butterflies like the Speckled Wood or the Orange tip.

It’s not just the rare species we need to look out for. Taking note of common species is important when making accurate comparisons with past numbers and when spotting trends in growth or decline.

Some species are now spoken of as being like the ‘canary in a coalmine’ that predicts disaster. One such is the Great-Yellow Bumblebee that benefits from the lower levels of herbicide and pesticide use in the Hebrides. It is still found in reasonable numbers here but has disappeared from much of the rest of Britain. There is some concern that this cool climate bee will not enjoy the increase in rain and heat of the climate emergency.

Collecting and sending in details of what you see of easily identified common species is of great value and it is one way in which we can all do something about the huge declines in insect life. I know we all wish there were a few less when the midge and the horsefly arrive, but insects play a vital part in this environment we all share.

Leaflets giving more information on Butterflies, Moths and Bumblebees are available from various outlets and can be downloaded from the OHBR (Outer Hebrides Biological Recording) website, where you can also submit your sightings.

Photo copyright: Bill Neill

Outer Hebrides Biological Recording (www.ohbr.org.uk) Curracag

Outer Hebrides Natural History Society (www.curracag.org.uk)

Local environment received a boost from rangers Anna and Emma

Iain Stephen Morrison

Anna Leschinski and Emma Edwards worked over the summer to deliver numerous initiatives across the islands, with the most prominent activities being a series of beach cleans, which benefitted from strong local support, carried out with support from Clean Coast Outer Hebrides.

NatureScot funded the two ranger posts after a successful joint bid from North Uist Development Company, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, RSPB Scotland and Stòras Uibhist.

“Anna and Emma have helped with the building of waymarker cairns at Balranald Nature Reserve, an assortment of maintenance jobs at Loch Druidibeg, bee counts and invasive rhododendron monitoring,” said RSPB Scotland warden Claire Bird.

“It has also meant that we have got to meet others from North Uist Development Company, Stòras Uibhist and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, forging great working relationships together that we will continue to gain from in the future.”

“In the short time the rangers have achieved a lot, from path surveys to beach cleans and bridge repairs carried out in clouds of midges! We would like to thank them for all their efforts and for highlighting how useful rangers can be to both the community and environment of the islands,” added Peter Coldwell, environment officer with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

Emma and Anna also organised volunteer days and contributed to the exhibition set to feature in the new environment centre being developed within the former Lochmaddy School. North Uist Development Company is working on an innovative new facility that will showcase the unique natural environment of the islands, provide visitor information and act as an educational engagement point demonstrating the importance of conservation practices for future generations. It is anticipated the centre will open in November to coincide with COP26.

“Anna and Emma, have been a huge help over the short period of time they were here this summer, making such a difference, including bringing the community together to clear the beaches of all sorts of rubbish and their valuable help with the environment centre in Lochmaddy. We wish there was funding available for them to stay all year round as there is so much to do,” said Ameena Camps from North Uist Development Company.

Darren Taylor, chief executive of Stòras Uibhist, added: “This is a great example of how working in partnership with other organisations can bring a wide range of benefits and we look forward to future collaboration and strengthening these relationships.”

Scientists and artists collaboration invites audience to Think Plastic

Taigh Chearsabhagh is to host a show centred around environmental questions this summer, the first in a series of activities about the climate crisis planned in the lead up to COP26, the United Nations climate change conference due to be held later this year in Glasgow.

Think Plastic, a touring exhibition from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, will open at the North Uist arts centre on 12th June 2021 and remain there until 28th August 2021.

Think Plastic combines art and science to provoke thought about plastic consumerism, an all the more pressing concern with the increase in single use plastic consumption during the time of COVID-19. Taigh Chearsabhagh will run a public engagement programme alongside the exhibition, which will encourage people to consider their own choices to minimise the impact on the environment and climate, an issue of particular significance in the Outer Hebrides.

Scottish ceramists Lorna Fraser and Carol Sinclair decided two years ago to look at the environmental impact of porcelain usage and question if alternative, less environmentally damaging alternatives were available. Soon they started to engage other specialists in an exciting new project that would become Think Plastic.

Lorna and Carol collaborated with fellow artists Fiona Hutchison, Fiona Pilgrim and Carla Edwards, along with scientists including Dr Peter Wilkie, tropical taxonomist at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, to create the exhibition which, through works of art and jewellery, presents plastic as a valuable and often misunderstood product.

Professor Mike Shaver of the University of Edinburgh Green Materials Laboratory also worked with the group along with his students Hatti Chisnall and Emily MacDonald.

Dr Peter Wilkie explained: “I got involved with the exhibition through my research on tropical tree family Sapotaceae and in particular Palaquium gutta, which produces a brilliant white latex, gutta percha, widely recognised as one of the first natural plastics and a precursor to synthetic alternatives.

“With financial help from the ‘Friends of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’ some new and sustainably produced gutta blocks were purchased from the Tjipetir Plantation in Indonesia and they have been used by Lorna and Carol to form part of the exhibition. Their work encourages us to think about the production, degradation and sustainable use of plastic and how our choices can impact on the climate emergency and biodiversity crises we face today,’’ continued Dr Peter Wilkie.

Amy Porteous from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh said it is important as many people as possible see Think Plastic: “It felt necessary at the time of its inception, but that urgency has multiplied tenfold. COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on how we value plastic.

Governments around the world have delayed or backtracked on policies to reduce plastic consumption and single-use plastic, in the form of personal protective equipment and packaging, has skyrocketed,” commented Ms Porteous.

Taigh Chearsabhagh is to run a ‘Message in a Bottle’ project as part of the engagement programme associated with Think Plastic. Individuals on the islands and further afield will be invited to salvage a plastic drinks bottle from the shore, write a message about the climate crisis addressed to politicians and polluters to go in the bottle, film themselves doing so and send the video to Taigh Chearsabhagh for inclusion in a multimedia installation at COP26.

Taigh Chearsabhagh is now open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 4pm. Further information about exhibitions, events and activities is available on the website (www.taigh-chearsabhagh.org) or on Facebook.

Red listed shark spotted in cove at Iochdar.

Abigail Taylor

Twitter user Katie (@StationeryWoman) could hardly believe her eyes when she spotted a tope shark in the shallows in Iochdar on 28th May 2021. 

The young male shark had become stranded in low tide and was spotted by Katie on her lunch break in the afternoon.

Tope sharks are extremely rare, can live more than 50 years, grow to a length of more than 6 feet and weigh up to 48kg. Tagging studies have shown that tope sharks can travel huge distances and some individuals tagged in the UK have later been found as far away as the Canary Islands.

Katie posted pictures on Twitter of the surprising marine sighting (pictured above) to see if anyone could help identify the shark. 

She said: “I went down to take a look and see if the shark was coping in the area where it was confined. I contacted the SSPCA to make them aware and see whether the shark needed immediate assistance to get back to sea.”

Scottish SPCA auxiliary inspector, Amanda MacDonald, said: “We were called out to what we believe was a young, male tope shark on 28th May 2021 after reports the animal was trapped in a cove.

“We monitored the shark along with a local RSPB volunteer and our hope was that it would go back out to sea with the high tide as it had no visible injuries.

“Unfortunately this did not happen and the shark stranded itself and sadly passed away. This is a phenomenon that can sometimes happen with this species and other types of marine creatures, often for no clear reason.

“We’d like to remind people that if they come across any injured or distressed wildlife they should keep their distance to prevent any further stress to the animal. Our animal helpline can be contacted on 03000999999 for advice and assistance seven days a week from 7.30am until 9pm.”

Tope sharks are listed as vulnerable by the ‘IUCN Red List’ and is a priority species under the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework.

A new fund has been launched to help communities and local groups get involved in monitoring Scotland’s seabed and coastlines.

Abigail Taylor

The Community Marine Monitoring Equipment Fund is offering support to up to ten groups to buy equipment to record and monitor their local marine life.

The aim of the project is to enable communities and local groups to gain the skills, experience and knowledge to participate in biodiversity surveys in Scotland, helping to improve our knowledge of marine species and habitats.

Individual grants of up to £1,500 will be offered for entry level equipment such as ID guides, quadrats and GoPros.

Larger grants up to £3,000 are available for joint applications between two or more groups.

Applications should have an emphasis on enabling community and/or youth engagement in marine monitoring.

The fund supported the publication last year of the Community-led Marine Biodiversity Monitoring Handbook – Scotland’s first “how to” guide including comprehensive information and resources for planning and carrying out marine surveys and monitoring.

NatureScot project officer Madlaina Michelotti said: “Communities around our coasts tell us they want to get more involved with their local shores and waters, but we know that access to the right equipment and resources can sometimes be a barrier.

“This new fund, launching in Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters, is an exciting opportunity for communities and local groups to survey their local marine and coastal habitats in a fun and collaborative way.”

The project is a partnership between NatureScot, Fauna & Flora International (FFI), communities, local groups and individuals, with funding support from the William Grant Foundation.

Fauna & Flora International’s Marine Project Officer Rebecca Plant said: “Coastal communities across Scotland are well-placed to harness solutions to ensure healthy, well-managed seas, and many communities are looking to play a greater role in decisions around local and national marine management.

“The collection of marine data through surveying and monitoring is a key process underpinning decision-making, however there are barriers to community involvement.

“We hope that the collaborative Community Marine Biodiversity Monitoring Project will build participation in community-led marine data collection via the Equipment Fund and the Monitoring Handbook, empowering communities to play their part in the management of their local waters.”

Nick Addington, Chief Executive of the William Grant Foundation, said: “We’ve seen evidence of how effective modern survey technology is in the hands of community volunteers. We’re pleased to be supporting this fund to give more communities the chance to contribute to knowledge about their local coasts and waters.”

More information about the fund is available here: https://www.nature.scot/funding-and-projects/community-led-marine-biodiversity-monitoring-project/community-marine-biodiversity-monitoring-equipment-fund

NatureScot is promoting a more environmentally friendly alternative to muirburning after a spate of wildfires in February

Abigail Taylor

Muirburn, permitted between October and April under certain conditions set out in the ‘Muirburn Code’, is the practice of burning heather to encourage fresh growth for game and livestock.

Last month, over two days, fire crews were called to uncontrolled blazes on moorland on the east side of Benbecula, with fires also taking hold around Eaval on North Uist and across a section of Iochdar common grazing on South Uist. While the fires are not all known to have started as muirburn, their occurence has sparked discussion on the practice.

Johanne Ferguson, Operations Manager for NatureScot, explained some of the detrimental effects associated with muirburn: “The fires release huge amounts of carbon dioxide. We’re all extremely concerned about climate change at the minute and as for Uist, it’s experiencing firsthand the effects of climate change.”

Carbon is stored in peat and moss on the hills where the fires take hold. Once burnt, the land can take at least 15 years to regrow to where it needs to be to store carbon released in the air.

“Uncontrolled fires take over and end up burning the blanket bog areas,” continued Johanne. “These areas form the necessary moss to produce peat, so when these areas are cleared by the fires, there is no peat being formed to store the carbon that’s in the air.”

Cutting is being recommended by NatureScot as a way to protect the environment and the wildlife that may be living in the heather and growth that is being burnt. NatureScot staff are in discussion with Stòras Uibhist and common grazings committees and aim to identify areas crofters wish to manage with muirburn so as to promote the method of cutting.

“By cutting instead of burning, we can preserve the moss and peat in the ground, keeping the stored carbon where it should be. If you cut instead of burning, there is material to use again, for example, in composting,” continued Johanne.

Working together with the community, NatureScot staff hope to reduce the need for muirburn and protect the already pressured environment. Rare wildlife thrives in areas of heather, with eagles and other protected species known to nest in the habitat.

Johanne added that while some crofters will continue the practice of muirburn, she urges them to follow the guidance set out on the NatureScot website.

“If they have to burn then they must follow the rules. It is important to note that if people are burning close to nesting protected birds they are committing an offence as they will be disturbing a schedule one bird species.”

Scottish Fire and Rescue service also urged those who wished to continue to burn to follow the rules to prevent further fires getting out of control: “Strict parameters are set for landowners during muirburn period and these include considering factors such as the wind, any wildfire danger warnings that are issued, the nature of the material and having measures in place to prevent escalation. Failing to follow these can lead to rapid fire spread beyond the planned area.”