Am Bratach No. 314
December 2017

Natures call
by Paul Castle

Oh! Is it a sparrow or a chaffinch, blackbird or song thrush? These are the burning questions revolving around many of our local Highland primary schools just now. Are you very familiar with the wildlife “out and about” in your neighbourhood at night? Or even through the day for that matter? The whole High Life Highland ranger team are presently working together with several P6-7 classes at local primary schools on the “Catch Me If You Cam” project. This six-week long pilot project, supported by Earthwatch Europe, uses trail cameras to capture and record local wildlife. Results of these studies will be entered on to the Highland Biodiversity Network Atlas Scotland, so the children are collecting valuable biological data.

Each chosen school was provided with a complete trail camera kit and, with the help of their local ranger, these were installed in, or close to, their school grounds to record the local wildlife, both day and night. Every week the SIM cards are changed and images and videos downloaded to see what wildlife delights may have been unknowingly captured. Various baits are used each week to see if this entices different animals to visit the chosen location. Any animals captured on the cameras are then researched by the children and identified. Interesting images captured can be uploaded to a dedicated safe Facebook page to be shared by any of the schools involved.

I am helping the P6 class at Halkirk School to record the wildlife visiting a staff member’s garden close by the school grounds. On the first week the camera was installed with no bait included in order to discover any animals already visiting the garden. During this first week many images of blackbird and robin were captured both through the day and the early evening. The children were particularly delighted when a night-time video showed a visiting cat approaching the camera. Obviously this strange object had appeared on the cat’s regular night time route and needed to be investigated more closely.

The kids have certainly been motivated by this project and are really excited to see what creatures have been to visit each week. The bird seed placed out in the second week definitely increased the visits by the local birds. Blackbird, robin, wren, chaffinch and house sparrow were all captured feeding on the seed. The card was totally full and had actually stopped recording three days before it was due to be changed. Adjustments to the camera settings were required to avoid capturing too much footage of the same birds moving around. These are all useful points which are coming to light during this pilot project.

Fruit was placed out on the third week and I was excitedly informed by the school that they had captured their first video of a mouse during the night. The camera kit includes identification materials so the kids can research what species of animals they are finding. The whole focus of the project is to engage school kids in the exciting world of the hidden wildlife camera and also recording accurate biological data. It is extremely important for the kids to understand that successful future conservation efforts rely on the accurate collection of species data found in any location.

Following this six-week pilot study, the children will hopefully be able to identify many more local species of animals than before and also understand the importance of biological recording. Another project hope is to secure further funding to bring this project to many more schools in Scotland and hopefully much further afield. With the social media element to the project, who knows, in a few years’ time, schools in the Highlands may be sharing images of pine martens with schools in Asia sharing images of leopards. What a great example of real citizen science in action.

Unfortunately I have been getting plenty of citizen science practice recently, with two dead porpoises and a dead Risso’s dolphin stranding in Caithness. Several rangers undertook the Scottish Marina Animals Stranding Scheme (SMASS) sampling training a while ago. It is an interesting if sad aspect to cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) studies but vitally important to help identify any possible issues which may otherwise go unnoticed. One of the porpoises and the Risso’s dolphin were found on a quiet section of Dunnet Beach so no one saw me sampling those. The dead porpoise found at Thurso beach resulted in several enquiries by interested passers-by as to what I was up to cutting pieces from the carcass. Once sent back to SMASS, these samples are examined to determine if there were more sinister reasons why these animals died.

Should any of you find a dead, stranded marine animal such as a cetacean, seal, basking shark or turtle then I urge you to contact your local countryside ranger or alternatively SMASS at or call 07979245893 or 01463 243030. Please give accurate details of location and possible species identification (if known) and condition (a photo can speak a thousand words). If the animals are in good condition they may be collected for necropsy studies by SMASS but if not samples are taken and other data collected to help with conservation of these wonderful sea creatures.

Paul is a High Life Highland ranger, based at Dunnet in Caithness and at Bettyhill.

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