Saturday, 30 January 2016

Marvellous Moss

Today we met David Chamberlain, moss recorder for Edinburgh since 1970, on Corstorphine Hill for a tour of some of its bryophytes -- that is, mosses and liverworts. None of us had ever looked at moss seriously before, beyond thinking it was green and quite pretty.

We were astonished in the next two hours, despite the covering of snow, to see at least 23 different types of moss (I think I missed a few!) and five different liverworts. The full Corstorphine Hill list is far longer. We had no idea there were such riches to be found in a park in the middle of Edinburgh. Here's the full story...


Our first two mosses were:

1. Bryum capillare (Capillary Thread-moss)

2. Brachythecium rutulabulum (Rough-stalked Feather-moss)

Bryum capillare and Brachythecium rutulabulum

We spent some time looking at these because they show the structure of moss very clearly. The green leafy part only has one set of chromosomes (haploid), and can reproduce by spreading sideways. However, the base of the stalks are diploid, and from these spring new haploid spores in capsules. The spores can blow thousands of miles in the wind, so the same species of moss are found all over the world.

3. Grimmia trichophylla (Hair-pointed Grimmia). These show one of the many adaptations mosses have developed to retain water: they have little white hairs that condense water from damp air.

The next few mosses were all 'dendroid', that is, tree-shaped: they look like miniature branches of conifer trees:

4. Hypnum cupressiforme (Cypress-leaved Plait-moss). "This is common as daisies", said David.

5. Eurhynchium hians (Swartz' Feather-moss)

6. Mnium Hornum (Swan's-neck Thyme Moss)

This fork-moss, however, was quite a different shape:
7. Dicranum scoparium (Broom fork-moss)

Dicranum scoparium

8. Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus (Springy turf-moss) "This is a nuisance because it takes over lawns", said David.

9. Dicranum Tauricum (Fragile fork-moss) is an example of one of the extraordinary and diverse ways mosses reproduce: the ends of the leaves snap off, blowing away and lodging somewhere. If you touch it, your fingers will be covered in green bits.
Dicranum Tauricum

10. Dicranoweisia cirrata (Common pincushion) often grows on top of fence posts, and has little points on top of its capsules. I'm sure I've photographed that before, I thought. I'm pretty sure that's it on the Wild Reekie logo, on top of a fence post in Mortonhall.

Dicranoweisia cirrata

11. Dicranella heteromalla (Silky Forklet-moss)

12. Polytrichum formosum (Black Haircap) was an amazing, glossy moss that looked like a miniature version of something you might find in the Botanics glasshouses, not up in the snow on Corstorphine Hill.
Polytrichichum formosum

13. Pseudotaxiphyllum elegans (Elegant silk-moss) grows on the ground. A lot of the English names are usefully descriptive -- and usefully related to the Latin names.

14. Amblystegium serpens (Creeping Feather-moss)

What do mosses grow on? Many grow on both walls or trees, but some are more particular. They grow on the shady north of the tree, but often also on the west, catching the damp winds. Tree-bark, David told us, has a pH which varies from 7 (neutral) to 5 (slightly acidic), and the more acidic it is, the fewer mosses can tolerate it. Conifer trees tend to be acidic and moss-free (although they provide other useful roles in a forest like winter shelter), while elder is one of the most hospitable.

The next two mosses we saw were closely related and growing on the same tree:

15. Orthotrichum pulchellum (Elegant Bristle-moss)

16. Orthotrichum affine (Wood Bristle-moss)

None of the Wild Reekians had hand-lenses, although David and his two apprentice-naturalists all did, and they were keen to lend them to us, and this was where, after several failed attempts, we at last got the hang of them. It was like diving into a magical world, with all kinds of miniature features of the moss world suddenly visible even to those of us who thought our eyesight was good. We could clearly see the difference between these two mosses, which look like different types of miniature heather.

So from this point on we were both gripped with Bryophytic enthusiasm, and beginning to get a bit tired and cold... We rattled through a few more species, eagerly passing round the hand lenses...

17. Ulota bruchii (Bruch's Pincushion)

18. Ulota phyllantha (Frizzled pincushion)

19. Calliergon cuspidatum (Pointed Spear-moss) which looked similar to many of the dendroid mosses we saw earlier but its fronds were decidedly spear-shaped, with a long point on the end.

20. Didymodon insulanus (Cylindric Beard-moss)

21. Cryphaea heteromalla. This moss, sticking distinctively out from the tree trunk in a sprightly way, was, to me, the most exciting of all. David has been recording since 1970, and the list he gave me of 79 different mosses recorded on Corstorphine Hill was made in 2005. But this one was not on it: it is new since this list was made, and was able to re-colonise the hill thanks to air quality improving. All that hard work campaigning by charities like Friends of the Earth has meant this little soul has been able to move back into Edinburgh, and quite quickly. With even better air quality, more would join it.

Cryphaea heteromalla

22. Grimmia pulvinata (Grey-cushioned Grimmia). I'm sorry I didn't photograph this, as the grey haze of white hairs was very striking. Like the other Grimmia we saw at the start, it can create its own moisture which condenses on the cobwebby hairs.

23. Tortula muralis (Wall Screw-moss)

The last moss we saw was my first identification, because it was also the first moss we saw: Bryum Capillare, flowering like anything along a fallen branch. I've noticed these for the last few springs and I always think they're better than snowdrops...

Bryum capillare


But there is more to Bryophytes than moss! We also saw five different species of liverwort, and although we probably couldn't distinguish them again, we might be at least able to tell a moss from a liverwort...

1. Barbilophozia hatcheri (Patcher's Pawwort) was the first one we saw: we speculated that the common name came from its usefulness patching cracks in houses to keep the wind and water out. It is ostensibly similar to moss, but looks quite different -- more primitive and less plant-like, perhaps. 

Barbilophozia hatcheri
I said the Wild Reekians knew nothing about moss: this was not completely true. One of us had read  Gathering Moss, by Robin Hill Kimmerer, which explores the cultural uses of moss throughout history. She knew about the patching! 

2. Ptilidium ciliare (Ciliated Fringewort) looked similar to the Pawwort, but as its name suggests was more fringy.

3. Metzgeria fruticulosa (Blueish Veilwort) was the other sort of liverwort, which forms flat, slimy-looking beds. Its leaves are much narrower than Pellia epiphylla below.

4. Pellia epiphylla (Overleaf Pellia) looked like what I'd always previously called 'liverwort'. Well now I know it's just one of 26 species that grow on Corstorphine Hill alone. 
Pellia epiphylla (in bad light!)
5. Metzgeria furcata (Forked Veilwort) 


We also saw a couple of fungus growing on an elder tree, and thanks to Vladimir the fungus expert, discovered they were Velvet shank fungus, and Jew's ear fungus, which we thought was due for a re-naming! [Edit: I see from the comments it's now known as Jelly ear - thank you Crafty Green Poet!]

Velvet shank fungus

Jew's ear fungus
Altogether it was a quite magical morning. If you ever thought little nature was to be seen in winter, or that you have to drive off to some remote part of Arran or the Highlands to see a dazzling array of species, ask David Chamberlain to take you to see the moss on Corstorphine Hill. I hope we'll do this again at Wild Reekie. It was one of those days after which you'll never see the world in quite the same way again -- and we're all going get a hand-lens!

To be notified of future Wild Reekie events visit join our Meetup group here.

Follow me on twitter @eleanormharris.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Cleaning up Restalrig Railway Path

Restalrig Railway Path is a useful link for walkers and cyclists, and a green corridor for wildlife through a busy area of Edinburgh between Leith Academy and Hibernian Football Club. These features are both what make it valuable, and make it in regular need of a clean-up.

Eager Wild Reekians eager to get started
We started at the Easter Road end, with the intention of cleaning up the section to Hawkhill Avenue.

It took a lot longer than we anticipated - we were determined to fish out all those plastic bags buried in the leaf-mould and caught up in the bushes! - and we only got about halfway.
Wild Reekians looking rather less eager after two hours hard work.  
We collected quite a lot more than in the picture, but conceded our haul to a passing bin lorry half way.

I've been thinking about doing something like this ever since I read the article which went round Facebook almost a year ago about the Dutch guy who cleaned up a river bank, called "I did a thing". Well, now we've started a thing.

We started two things actually: we also started a Wild Reekie species list, although between concentrating on litter and lack of knowledge it is a rather short one. Well done to Adam who identified a Redwing from its song. Anyone know what the delicate purple fungus above is?
Not much out in January, but we think this is Cow parsley. I think I've just trodden on it, oh dear.

After all our hard work we went to visit the nearby Lochend Park, with its unexpected lake and spectacular views of Arthur's Seat.

That gave us a few birds for the species list at any rate.
Graylag goose and Tufted ducks
So today's short list is:
  • Cow parsley
  • Hawthorn
  • Woodlouse (Slater)
  • Graylag goose
  • Canada goose
  • Mallard
  • Tufted duck
  • Coot
  • Moorhen
  • Black-headed gull
Huge thanks to the guys from Edinburgh Council who brought us the litter-pickers and other equipment. 

And huge well done to the Wild Reekians who took part: it was hard work and not the most enjoyable of trips, but the company was great and I hope you all feel you've done something really worthwhile!

Sign up to be notified of future events at

"Truly enjoyed myself! Nice friendly people, great to be outdoors and do something good. Thank you everyone!" 
Have a look also for the Restalrig Road and Railway Path Facebook Group who also organise clean-ups along the path. 

Follow me on Twitter @eleanormharris.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Woodland management at Burdiehouse Burn

The Wild Reekians headed to Gilmerton for a day of woodland management.

Burdiehouse Burn begins as the Lothian Burn in the Pentlands, runs between Liberton and Gilmerton in the Burdiehouse Burn Valley,  and becomes the Niddrie Burn before running into the sea at Joppa.

In 2000 the valley was planted with a Millennium Wood and soon afterwards the Friends of Burdiehouse Burn Valley Park was established. It has cared for the park ever since, with the help recently of Esperanza Martin of Edinburgh and Lothian Greenspace Trust. We are very grateful to the Friends and Esperanza for letting us join them.

Esperanza teaching us how to use loppers and bow saw to remove lower branches.

The wood is now maturing and, as the trees have flourished and are all the same age, are in need of thinning and having their lower branches removed. This will admit more light to the valley floor in summer, allow people to explore under the trees, and prevent the woodland becoming overgrown and threatening.
Getting stuck in.

We were also joined by Pete Carthy of Instinctively Wild who demonstrated the camp kettle.

Water in an outer chamber is heated by a small fire of twigs in the middle, with the kettle acting as a chimney. Tea for all was ready in four minutes. If you think that looks fun, sign up to be notified of future Wild Reekie events as Pete has agreed to lead a Bushcraft one.

It was a beautiful snowy day to be out amongst the trees, warmed up by hard work: we all felt well exercised after a day wielding heavy loppers. If you're walking through Burdiehouse Burn Valley, especially next spring when the leaves come out, have a look at the Millennium Forest.

Follow me at @eleanormharris.

Become a Local Environmental Historian

Snug in the downstairs room of a pub, nine of us gathered around an 1812 map of Edinburgh. I led the workshop as I'm an Edinburgh historian which you can read more about on my Academia page.

We identified where we lived and used the map as a source to discuss how the local environment had changed over the past two centuries. Themes included trees, water, agriculture, housing, industry, biodiversity, perspectives and landowners.

I introduced the group to some of the sources and resources available in Edinburgh for undertaking their own research into their local area.

Hopefully at the next event new participants will be able to hear about some of their groundbreaking research towards an environmental history of Edinburgh!

Feedback included "interesting and inspirational", "fascinated and stimulating" and "your enthusiasm is infectious". That sounds like a reason to do another. Sign up to be notified of future events at

Henry Cockburn describes how before the Moray Estate was developed in 1822, he used to stand at the corner of Charlotte Square on summer evenings and listen to the corncrakes in the meadow which is now Moray Place.

Sources and Resources Links

Follow me at @eleanormharris

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Exploring forests with a forester

On an unexpectedly snowy January day, fourteen Wild Reekians took to the Pentlands at Bonaly in the company of Andrew Heald.

Andrew is a commercial forester with an interest in sustainability. From a beginning managing Welsh woodlands, he has worked in Finland, Uruguay, Ghana, and elsewhere on projects including World Wildlife Fund's "New Generation Plantations" project.

"Unhappy Sitka", outcompeted by heather for
nitrogen in the soil.
"Happy Sitka", although suffering from
aphid damage due to mild winters.
Due to the time of year we focused on evergreen trees, looking at the role natives Holly, Juniper, Yew and Scots pine play in the landscape, and identifying commercial species Lodgepole pine, Larch (curiously, a deciduous conifer), and Sitka spruce.

Treeless uplands are exposed! And result in spatey, flood-prone rivers.
We learned about changing fashions in managing woodlands. The early nineteenth-century "policy" woodlands of Bonaly were extended by the Edinburgh lawyer and early environmentalist Henry Cockburn who purchased it in 1811. The plantations at Bonaly reservoir were late 1980s examples of 'insensitive' twentieth-century commercial planting. Some very newly-planted mixed woodland showed the challenge of establishing new woods on exposed Scottish hillsides, and protecting it from the ravages of aphids, voles, rabbits, squirrels, sheep and deer. The old 1920s plantations had matured, and were being managed in more modern ways, better for wildlife, people and trees: thinning allowed light in to encourage woodland-floor plants like wood sorrel; fallen and standing deadwood provided food and habitats for birds, insects and fungus; and huge, mature Sitkas acted as "frame trees", protecting their younger neighbours from wind and soil erosion.
Frame trees, forest floors, and fallen deadwood.
"We massacre every town tree that comes in a mason's way. There was no Scotch city more strikingly graced by trees than Edinburgh. used to be. How well the ridge of the old town was set off by a bank of elms that ran along the front of James' Court. The old aristocratic gardens of the Canongate were crowded with trees. There were several on the Calton Hill: seven, not ill grown, on its dry summit. All Leith Walk and Lauriston was fully set with wood. Moray Place might have been richly decorated with old and respectable trees. But they were all murdered, on the usual pretence of adjusting levels and removing obstructions. No apology is thought necessary for murdering a tree; many for preserving it." From Henry Cockburn's "Memorials of his Time"

We learned to look at the forest through the eyes of a forester: looking for the straight timber that would suit the sawmill, and the ease of access to harvest it easily. But we also saw it through the eyes of the environmentalist: looking at the place of trees in a landscape, mitigating floods, providing habitat for wildlife, and soothing the soul of the exploring human - as long as you don't mind falling in the occasional muddy ditch.

You can follow Andrew Heald on twitter at @andyheald

Sign up to be notified of future events at
Hug a Sitka.

Monday, 4 January 2016

New Year Plant Hunt

The first Wild Reekie event took place on the morning of 1 January 2016 on Blackford Hill. Ten of us spent three hours hunting for plants in flower, as part of the UK-wide New Year Plant Hunt, organised by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI).

 We found 21 different flowering plants:

1. Bramble
2. Gorse
3. Yorkshire fog (grass)
4. Annual meadow grass
5. Alder
6. Ragwort
7. Red campion
8. Giant butterbur
9. Smooth hawks-beard
10. Daisy
11. Ivy
12. Hazel
13. Wood Avens
14. Prickly sow-thistle
15. Barren strawberry
16. Herb robert
17. Lesser celandine
18. Hogweed
19. White dead-nettle
20. Cock’s foot (grass)
21. Smooth sow-thistle

Many thanks to our two ecologists who helped with the identifications.
"I think this was the most enjoyable Jan 1st I've had for a long time. Meeting new people, being in the fresh air, and looking for anything flowering. Great fun, good to do something different, looking forward to doing more."
Sign up to be notified of future events at