A Quick Jaunt to Heaven

Saturday started out as I expected it would: with a lie in.

But I had things to do, and other things I wanted to do so I found myself driving in Loch Leven’s direction to pick up nails and to have a wander about Portmoak Moss, on the east side of the loch.

Turned out the hardware store was closed so I had more time to wander. Perfect. However, driving clockwise around the loch I was finding thick, low cloud all the way round, and had the same cloud on the drive through from Dollar.

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Portmoak Moss last week

Portmoak Moss always gives me something to see or do, whether this is photographing the timid roe deer and brown hares that hide in the heather, or pulling out the conifers that have managed to take hold in the middle of the actual moss.

However, whilst driving through Scotlandwell I spotted the sign for Kilmagad Woods, another Woodland Trust property that stretches up the hillside above Scotlandwell. You can actually see it in the pic above, it’s all the trees on the right-hand side of the hills.

This gave me an idea, I was fairly certain I could get above the clouds if I went up high enough, so this is what I did.

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The “view”

As expected, I couldn’t see much on the journey up, but took advantage of the conditions to take some eerie, mystical photos of the woodland. It’s a nice wood, from what I could see, with plenty of new native trees having been planted amongst the remaining oaks, gorse and occasional exotic conifer.

I passed a father with his two kids who looked a little less amazed with the whole experience than I was. One was in fact enjoying spinning around and making a racket more than exploring the misty hillside, which I thought was sad. It seemed the kid didn’t know what was out there to see and do, or was not allowed off the path for safety reasons.

I don’t know if that was definitely the case but it seemed that way and I think it’s a shame. I remember, as a child, hiding in the gorse, sliding down hillsides on my knees leaving me with nice, big green stained jeans, and generally just having loads of fun. I suspect technology plays a large part in this problem.

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Figures in the mist

After a bit of running (I hadn’t run in 8 months but found myself in surprisingly good shape, if I do say so myself), I eventually started to feel the warmth of the sun making it’s way through the thinner cloud. This meant I was close to being above the cloud and fortunately still had plenty of hill yet to climb!

Having taken photos under the clouds, and planning on taking photos above the clouds, I felt I better take some as I was bursting free of the clouds…

As I poked my head up from under the cover of the clouds I had a brief search for a brocken spectre but it didn’t happen because there was no fog on the side of me opposite the sun. A brocken spectre, by the way, is when the sun casts your magnified shadow on to the fog behind you, and adds a nice rainbow halo around your shadow’s head for added effect if the water droplets in the cloud are of uniform size.

This phenomenon probably sparked the myths of the Am Fear Liath Mòr, a tall figure that instils an uneasy feeling in walkers climbing to the summit of Ben MacDhui in the Cairngorms. I can imagine it could be a bit unnerving having a huge figure appearing to stand just in sight but staying in the mist to watch you.

I, however, had too little time to be worrying about tall, strange figures stalking me through the clouds. Following the contour around to some crags that I was planning on getting on top of, I spotted some Pink-footed Geese flying over, clearly a little bemused at the fact Loch Leven and all the fields had disappeared from beneath them.

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Pinkfeet in hazy light

Then the warmth struck me. I was above the clouds, and boy was it spectacular. At first I stood for a bit just taking it in, spotting hills in the distance that had also managed to keep their head above the sea of clouds. Then I realised I had limited time as the sun was setting.

Here’s my initial view after having ascended to a higher level, probably what a lot of people imagine heaven to look like…

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A quick scramble up the crags to get to the perfect spot before I could fully appreciate what I was seeing.

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White Crags, Lomond Hills

I found myself a nice bit of rock that provided a good platform for viewing the effects of the temperature inversion. A temperature inversion is when the usual decrease of temperature with increase in altitude is inverted in a small layer of the atmosphere, so it was warmer in the hills than it was around Loch Leven.

The effect here has been that the usual mechanisms present in the atmosphere couldn’t penetrate the inverted layer leaving the lowlands shrouded in mist.

Anyway, I was up there to enjoy it and take pictures, so that’s what I did. (Please click on the pics to enlarge)

It was pretty cool, to say the least! I could see so far as well, all the way across to the Loch Lomond and Trossachs NP, and north to the Angus Glens and beyond into the Cairngorms NP.

It was like standing on an island in the middle of a huge sea, looking across to other islands like the Ochil Hills and Cleish Hills. What should have been there was Loch Leven below me with Kinross, Dollar and Stirling in the distance, and the Firth of Forth and Edinburgh to the south, but all there was was cloud.

I’m particularly pleased with that shot of the skein of geese above the clouds as you don’t often get to see that, never mind photograph it!

Anyway, the sun set and I had to make my way back down through into the gloomy woods. I took more pictures because why not.

And that was that. An impromptu wander about on Portmoak Moss lead to one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever laid my gaze upon, and I discovered I’m not as unfit as I feared.

Today, I was out ringing and thought I’d just compile a few photos from that. We were out on some farmland in Kinross-shire aiming for farmland birds funnily enough, mainly finches, buntings and thrushes. We caught 12 birds… and it turned out we were in the wrong field which one of the landowners was not best pleased about. We sorted it out though and the farmer seemed happy enough for us to ring on his land but considering the poor quantity of birds (quality was great), we may not return.

Anyway, a nice day in the snow and fog.

A Quick Jaunt to Heaven

Visiting the Land of the Fairies

Today I climbed up Ben Shee whilst admiring the magical, new (…relatively new) woodlands that are being established in Glen Sherup. To explain the title, Ben Shee’s name derives from the gaelic word ‘sith’, which is a conical hill that was associated with fairies. Well, the fairies round here have clearly switched their magic dust for saplings!

Glen Sherup is a wee glen on the other side of the Ochil Hills to Dollar (where I currently reside) and is part of the Glen Devon Woodlands, a Woodland Trust property. It’s a nice area of native trees that have been planted on what I can only assume used to be grazed uplands.

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I have been planning to visit this area just to see what can be accomplished by a community, and to see how these new native woodlands establish themselves over time. Ideally, I’ll return again in spring/summer to see the flora in bloom, and then return again in a few years to see how well the woodland is doing, how the landscape has changed, and basically to enjoy myself as it is a very nice place.

I started my wander in the car park, and walked up towards Glensherup Reservoir through the spruce plantations that cloak the hillside on the opposite side of the glen to the woodlands I was interested in.

 

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Sitka Spruce Picea sitchensis

There are some plantations that aren’t too bad, not too dense, bit of an understory able to develop, some different species mixed in. This is not one of them, ranks upon ranks of Sitka Spruce Picea sitchensis stretching across the hillside, all the same age, all the same height, tightly packed, ugh. Fortunately I didn’t have to stay here long, and made my way across the top of the dam to where I wanted to be.

The hillside looks pretty bare at a quick glance, I’ll be honest. But take a little closer look and it is speckled with trees all over the place. The most obvious being silver birch Betula pendula which covered vast areas. Anyway, as I made my way through the gate I felt a lot more welcome than I had when visiting Rough Moss Cleuch, with a welcome sign, a nice stile-type thing and no shotgun cartridges strewn about the place. Although, thinking about access, that stile isn’t particularly friendly to disabled or elderly people.

Also notice how the fences have all been kitted out with bamboo sticks to deter low-flying birds from doing damage to themselves, as black grouse Lyrurus tetrix have been found to be lekking in this area. This species isn’t doing great in the Ochils so clearly this new habitat is helping them out.

I never did see any grouse but did manage to see one species I wanted to see, just because I don’t see it very often. Juniper Juniperus communis has been planted on this hill and I really hope it does well as it’s such a nice plant. I don’t know why I’m drawn to it, probably because it’s the native conifer that is least common.

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Juniper with the vast swathes of sitka in the background

It was also nice to see great wood-rush Luzula sylvatica and foxglove Digitalis purpurea, a couple of woodland species, still clinging on in what was once open grassland but is now thankfully being reverted back. I’m sure they’ll spread as the trees mature.

Trees noted on my climb up included the expected silver birch Betula pendula and sessile oak Quercus petraea (been told the pic of leaf below is in fact Quercus x rosacea, the hybrid between sessile and pendunculate oak), but also a rich smorgasbord of other lovely natives. I’m trying out a new way of photographing plants at the moment which involves turning on the flash, setting ISO at 100, setting to Macro Zoom, and turning down the shutter time (I think that’s what turning the wee wheel does). Gives quite a nice effect in my humble opinion.

The first picture here shows a pretty heavily browsed sessile oak Quercus petraea and I found that I was seeing more browsing damage on oaks than any other species, some of them reduced to barely a half a metre high with tiny, short twigs poking off the main stem. I didn’t see any roe deer Capreolus capreolus here but did see signs of them and heard one bark as I was on the way up the hill.

The fence around Glen Sherup woods would appear to be a deer fence but I suppose they’ve found a way in somehow. Here’s a picture of some deer from Portmoak Moss (another Woodland Trust site) yesterday.

 

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One tree species I was surprised not to see was Scots pine Pinus sylvestris but upon arrival at the peak of Ben Shee, it appeared that only some areas had been planted with Scots pine. I guess this is because this species will do better than most deciduous trees given the climatic and environmental conditions so the Woodland Trust are allowing some areas to be pine-free?

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An area with Scots pine mixed in on the West side of Ben Shee

In terms of ground flora, we’ve already seen the great wood-rush Luzula sylvatica that surrounded some of the juniper juniperus communis bushes. As this was once grazed grassland, there are patches of bracken Pteridium aquilinum amongst the trees but I think bracken is a bit shade-intolerant so once the trees mature a bit the bracken will hopefully reduce in its abundance.

Other areas were covered in raspberries Rubus idaeus, rosebay willowherb Chamaerion angustifolium and many grasses that I will be able to identify later in the year. I promise.

As I gained a bit of altitude I was happy to see that blaeberry Vaccinium myrtillus became the norm amongst the grasses, and patches of Polytrichum strictum, P. commune  and Sphagnum appeared (I suspect S. capillifolium). Most surprising though was cowberry Vaccinium vitis-idaea which I’d thought would have been grazed out of existence on Ben Shee.

It was quite refreshing to not come across any heather Calluna vulgaris at all in the Glen Sherup woods, makes a change from most upland areas. I also came across a few patches of dog lichen Peltigera sp. which are really nice to see and photograph. A strange thing when you first discover them.

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Speaking of dog, having seen plenty flora I didn’t see much fauna. The roe deer Capreolus capreolus was heard and tracked, red fox Vulpes vulpes was also tracked as was bank vole Myodes glareolus. They were very active in the areas of great wood-rush Luzula sylvatica in particular (making a lot of rustling noises) and I even found some droppings in a wee opening to a tunnel system.

You may notice there’s one non-mammalian photo there. This fox moth caterpillar Macrothylacia rubi was up at the peak of Ben Shee (515m) looking a little cold so I hollowed out a bit in the grass, closer to the ground and placed it in there in hopes it warms up a little. There’s plenty for it to eat up there!

Birds weren’t seen much either but I’ll be honest, I wasn’t looking very hard! Three stonechats Saxicola rubicola, a few meadow pipits Anthus pratensis and a couple of ravens Corvus corax were all of note up the hill but short-eared owl, black grouse, kestrel and plenty more are up there. I’ll go back another time of year in better conditions for the birds!

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Stonechat and meadow pipit

So, to conclude: I love this place. The sight of a landscape that is on its way to being restored to it’s natural state excites me, especially when it’s just through the valley from where I’m staying. Seeing species manage to reclaim areas that they once lived in, such as Black grouse Lyrurus tetrix, not to mention all the native trees that had been grazed to oblivion, is great to see.

Lastly, from the top of Ben Shee I could look northwards towards Crieff through the Glen of Eagles. Who knows, perhaps with enough work and perseverance (and time obviously) we may see eagles return to the Ochils..!

Visiting the Land of the Fairies

Visiting the Rough Moss Cleuch

All sounds more spectacular than it was.

Rough Moss Cleuch is a small valley/ravine in the Moorfoot Hills in the Scottish Borders, on the B709. I found out about it after mentioning on the Rewilding Scotland group that I was going to go and look at relict woodland in the Moorfoot Hills. Stuart Adair kindly sent me a report that detailed vegetation in selected cleuchs in the western Borders. (see Ferreira (1978) Preliminary vegetation survey in selected cleuchs in western Borders)

A quick look at the Moorfoot cleuchs made me rethink where I was going to go (which was going to be the Moorfoot Valley, which has similar cleuchs, and Juniper Juniperus communis) so I headed off to the Borders for a bit of a poke about.

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Moorfoot Hills

Firstly, the Moorfoot Hills are typically devoid of life. Burnt and bitten into a flat, heather-smothered landscape, it is nothing spectacular. After a wee drive up and down the above section of the B709, I thought I’d located Rough Moss Cleuch. It turned out not to be the aforementioned but I didn’t realise that until after.

What I saw in this cleuch was about as depressing as the surrounding hills. Although there were trees (Rowan Sorbus aucuparia) there was little else. The ground flora was being taken over by grasses (I’m working on my grass ID this year) and Heather Calluna vulgaris. The steep rocky faces weren’t so bad, with Blaeberry Vaccinium myrtillus, Foxgloves Digitalis purpurea and ferns Dryopteris.

One feature of most cleuchs is a wee stream running down the middle. I could see this was clearly once the case as a few plants that favoured wetter conditions were present and the shape of the cleuch showed that water had scoured a way through the rocks.

Now though, there was barely a trickle. Hardly anything running down through the rocks, and the area to either side of the narrow path of this trickle were being overcome with grasses. I can’t say for certain, but I have a feeling the reason for this lack of water might be the fact that the moorland is drained by the landowner for management of the moorland, so it’s better for grouse shooting.

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A trickle of it’s former self

The trees were also in pretty bad condition, with a lot of dead limbs having fallen off in the past few years, and quite a few limbs dead but still attached to the trees. There was also very little regeneration here, with a few small trees venturing out on to the moorland that surrounds the cleuch. I actually found the problem though. As I came round one of the corners, there was a group of 3 Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus just about to lie down and have a graze.

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Roe Deer, the culprits

Of course, the deer aren’t to blame for their own presence, but that’s a whole other blog post, one that’s been covered by many, many, many, many others, and many more.

Poking my head out the top of the cleuch, I wasn’t that surprised really. Moorland, dominated by Heather Calluna vulgaris, with varying states of burnt-ness and the occasional Sitka Spruce Picea sitchensis seedling taking hold. Also, plenty of drainage channels.

After that depressing bout, I found the correct cleuch and ventured in.


 

From the outset, it already looked to be in a much healthier state than Dead Cleuch. More trees, I could hear running water, and birds singing.

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Wolf Cleuch

If you have particularly keen eyesight then you’ll see the wee “PRIVATE” sign. Having done my first year of Countryside Management BSc and having been in the countryside for a lot of my 19 year lifetime, I know that this goes against the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, so I ignored it and continued responsibly.

Once in the cleuch I was already in a better mood. More tree species already. Rowan Sorbus aucuparia, Downy Birch Betula pubescens, Blackthorn Prunus spinosa, and a willow species (looking at the report Stuart sent me, in 1978 it was noted “Salix aurita occurs close to the burn…” so I suspect that’s what it was).

The ground flora, as can possibly be seen in the above photos, was good by the burn, with Great Wood-rush Luzula sylvatica and Foxgloves Digitalis purpurea all over the place, and a few nice, thorny rose bushes for me to snag my clothes on (Rosa villosa I think). Basically there were typical woodland species enjoying the woodland habitat. There wasn’t just Heather Calluna vulgaris everywhere, there was some Blaeberry Vaccinium myrtillus and all in all a far more biodiverse ground layer of plants.

On a side note, look how much more water is flowing in this cleuch. I wonder why there ‘s more here than in Dead Cleuch…

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Luzula, Dryopteris, Digitalis, Mercurialis, etc.

Other wildlife present included a surprising number of birds. This stretch of woodland is about 400m long and no wider than 50m at most plus it’s far from any other woodland. Nevertheless, I had about 10 Long-tailed Tits, 2 Blue Tits, 2 Great Tits, 3 Chaffinches, 1 Treecreeper, some Goldcrests, and 12 Bullfinches (plus 15 Red-legged Partridge).

The current state of our woodland bird species comes up now and then, with woodland bird populations having decreased since the 1970s. Imagine if even some of the uplands were re-wooded, how many more species of woodland bird would we have living in our countryside? Not only birds though, woodland butterflies have been declining since the 1990s, and 30 species of woodland flowering plants are on the national red list. More woodland = more of a chance for our woodland dwelling organisms, surely? (see here)

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Bullfinches feeding on buds

I’ll need to return to this site as there was another 2 cleuchs that I wanted to explore, and I didn’t manage to explore all of Wolf Cleuch as it started raining heavily.

So, in terms of management and stuff, I do wonder what’s going to happen to all the spreading trees that are venturing out on to the heather-dominated wasteland. Will the landowner just turn a blind eye or will they burn it all back or bulldoze it off the land? Whatever happens, I’d love to see these cleuchs spread their seed further on to the moorland, and hopefully this will happen some day…

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Visiting the Rough Moss Cleuch

… New me?

No, I’m going to stay as I am because I feel it’s been going quite well thus far. New aims though? Yes, I’ll have a few of those for this year.

If you haven’t yet seen my recap of 2016 then please read that first.

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So, what can I possibly do better this year? Well, for starters I was so enthralled in the world of flowers that I paid no attention to grasses, rushes and sedges. Having had a good look at my new book (Plants and Habitats by Ben Averis) I realise that grasses are great indicators of habitats and soil types. Therefore, I’ll be making sure to work on my grass ID in 2017, whilst improving my bryos and continuing with everything else.

Next up, seeings as it was a successful tactic in 2016, I’m going to take every opportunity I get. I applied for the Young Birders’ Training Course on the Isle of May, I applied for my internship with SNH, I took part in the New Year Plant Hunt, I applied to get on the ORCA marine mammal surveyors course, I applied to be the youth writer for BiOME Ecology, and the list goes on… I applied for lots of things, made them happen and got a lot of experience. So that’s what I’m going to do in 2017.

Above: Some unseen photos of what I got to do on the Isle of May, although I’m about to tweet that one with the GBBGs.

 

Educate myself. This is really relating to how much I know about the Scottish countryside. Sure, I know what’s there, I can see it, but I’d like to know more about what could (or should?) be there such as the habitats that would naturally occur, and I’d like to know why habitats exist where they do. That’s not to say I know nothing on the subject, but I’d like to know more.

For example, I visited Wolf Cleuch in the Moorfoot Hills on New Year’s Eve to see what habitat would have existed all over those hills back in ‘the day’, whenever that was. What I saw at first was incredibly depressing as I drove through the barren, biologically boring, burnt and bitten moorland, and then I became even more depressed to see that (what I thought was) Wolf Cleuch had declined in it’s healthiness since the piece of text I’d read had been written.

However, I’d gone into the wrong cleuch, and Wolf Cleuch was in much better condition. That said, it still wasn’t doing terribly well and was restricted to just the one wee cleuch, with a few birches and willows managing to spread out on to the neighbouring moorland.

Regarding that “PRIVATE” sign, so the Scottish Outdoor Access Code doesn’t apply on this land then? That’s not something you just decide, it’s against the legislation to be disallowing responsible access, and to be honest it’s just not very friendly.

Anyway… Hm… Other aims and targets for the coming year… There’s the obvious ones like “do well in my studies” or “get fit” but I’m going to focus on the ecology-related stuff because that’s why you’re here.

Well, to finish off, I’d like to continue reaching out to people, enthusing people, and raising awareness of our natural world. I was recently out with my mates who took quite an interest in what I was doing and were asking about the photos I upload to Facebook. That felt good.

So, to keep feeling good in 2017, I’m going to keep spreading my love of the natural world to you blog readers, my Twitter followers, Facebook friends, Flickr picture viewers, Instagram followers and all the people I meet non-virtually. And I hope you enjoy it!

To end this blog post, a compilation of photos of me remaining enthusiastic…

 

… New me?

New Year

As is inevitable at this time of year, other than the fact it’s New Year, most people come up with some sorts of resolutions that they are going to attempt to stick to throughout 2017.

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Sunrise from the Isle of May, July

Well, I am most people so this is what I’m going to do. First though, a recap of the past year.

2016 has been probably my best year yet, and I know that’s a very big statement but hear me out. For a start, I began last year with the New Year Plant Hunt, having had no previous botanical ability (other than tree ID), and yet, armed with my new Collins Flower Guide and some pure determination, I managed to pull off 5 New Year Plant Hunts in a 4 day period, identifying (very nearly) everything correctly.

From there I’ve developed what I feel is a good botanical knowledge, given the majority is self taught. I’ve definitely had help though and wouldn’t have progressed as much as I have had I not had social media and the right people around me.

To sum up how far I’ve come, I saw a small plant in Camperdown Forest Park in Dundee in September and had a feeling it was Wintergreen. I’d never seen Wintergreen before and couldn’t recall looking at it in any books or online and yet, I was correct. Anyway, here are some botanical highlights…

Really, all of my field skills have come on leaps and bounds this year. I’m a marine animal surveyor with ORCA; I now know my dragons and damsels, am confident with bumbles, and have delved into the world of lepidoptera; my bird ID is still getting better and I’ve enjoyed many more birding highlights this year which I guess I can’t really leave out of this blog, considering it’s called “Birding with Gus”. So here we are, a few highlights…

(There are dozens of other pictures I’d have liked to include here but you’d get bored, trust me. Check out my Flickr page though as I’ve uploaded all my good pictures to date. Use the search function or have a browse through my albums.)

Those pictures were taken all over Scotland; Loch Leven, the Isle of May, Creag Meagaidh, Barra, Wester Ross, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee… And that is actually one of my biggest highlights. Having been given so many opportunities to visit so many places and see management, botany, birds, insects, etc. that I wouldn’t have seen if I’d stayed in one place. It’s been a fantastic year of travelling about and I hope my continual movement continues into 2017!

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Visiting many places = meeting many people. And what a brilliant bunch of people I’ve met. All full of knowledge, so kind and great fun to be around, and for that I’m extremely grateful (how soppy is that?). My progress is a result of other peoples’ constant support and encouragement and whether I’ve met you in the flesh or through a screen, I’d like to say thank you.

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To be honest, 2016 was so full of great things that I can’t sum it all up in one blog post. All I’ll say is that 2017 has a lot to live up to… but I have a feeling it’s going to be good (for me, perhaps not so good in terms of politics, climate, etc., but I’ll try my hardest to make an impact in the world of conservation).

The best way to have a good year, as I learnt from 2016, is to start it well. That’s why in 10 hours I’m going to a New Year Plant Hunt with Wild Reekie, just as I did last year!

Plus, I’m laying out a few things I’d like to do throughout the year, ‘resolutions’ if you insist. But, that will have to wait until tomorrow as I’m tired and my wee brother’s just got back from New Year’s celebrations.

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!

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Me getting ready to dive into 2017…
New Year