Wednesday 31 October 2018

Islay Images for Loch Gruinart

The RSPB commissioned these six images to be used in their visitors’ centre on Islay. They depict the wildlife of the flooded meadows at the head of Loch Gruinart, and will be displayed along the sill of the huge picture-window that looks out across the fields. It’s possible to get very close views of all the wildlife on the reserve, and I spent a wonderful few days making my field-sketches here.
The pictures are all hand made screen prints from an edition limited to three prints of each image. All money from the sale of the first print will go to fund further RSPB projects on Islay.

The pictures chart the life of these meadows from January through to December.

The story starts on the left of the display, with the flooded winter fields.

Winter rain is held back by sluice gates, so the flooded fields can be used by ducks such as wigeon and pintail. Hares also feed on the rich grassland, which in Spring are covered in daisies, buttercups and marsh marigolds.

As the weather warms, these damp fields become full of insects. Nesting waders, like lapwing, find plenty of food for their chicks. Roe deer graze here, and may be chased by territorial birds.

Cattle manure is spread on the middle of the field to make a Corncrake Corridor. Corncrakes rely on this shelter when they return from Africa in April. Breeding snipe use the fence posts to survey their territory.

In late summer, once the corncrakes have fledged, the fields are cut for silage. Starlings feed in the stubbles. Cattle graze any rough vegetation, in preparation for our winter visitors.

In October many thousands of barnacle geese arrive from their breeding grounds in Greenland. Our mild, damp climate means that the grass grows throughout the winter. The geese can graze here, safe on the reserve.

Several thousand white fronted geese spend the winter feeding on the reserve. Along with the barnacle geese, they roost at night on Loch Gruinart, safe from predators. Whooper swans also make the reserve their winter home.

Peatland Pictures for RSPB

I spent most of last winter in my studio, creating twelve screen prints of Hebridean wildlife. These were commissioned by the RSPB, to be used in a display for their visitors’ centre on Islay. Six of the pictures depict the wildlife of the island’s peatlands. 

This part of the project was paid for by the whisky producer Lagavullin. To celebrate their 200th anniversary they released 522 bottles of a special 1991 single cask edition whisky to create a legacy fund for Islay community projects. Thanks to this fund, the RSPB is restoring 300 hectares of peatland on their nature reserves and the artwork will be used to help visitors learn more about this exciting landscape.

The artwork is designed to frame the big picture window in the visitors' centre on RSPB's Loch Gruinart reserve. These six pieces are available for sale as individual pictures (minus the text of course). Click on the image to see it in full.

Monday 26 March 2018

Project Puffin

When I was invited to spend a week working with RSPB's Project Puffin team last year, I didn't realise that I would have to travel all the way to the most northerly point of the British Isles. And that was only the beginning. The team had assembled in Shetland to monitor an important breeding population of puffins. Every day started with a brisk uphill march of an hour to the colony, carrying heavy scientific equipment, rain coats, warm clothes, climbing gear, and in my case, painting paraphernalia. We had to run the gauntlet of a huge breeding colony of great skuas. In Shetland they're known as Bonxies, for their habit of seeing off any intruders from their territory with a vigorous peck to the head. Luckily the skuas had become used to people on the path, and so as long as we kept to the track we could enjoy seeing the birds at close quarters with their fluffy orange chicks.
Another distraction was all the other rare and exciting birdlife along the walkway. I have never seen dunlin displaying before, and it was wonderful hearing the snipe performing their drumming display overhead.
At first, the puffins were not easy to see. We discovered that the number of breeding birds here had declined by more than 90%. Without safety in numbers, puffins would fly in at top speed to avoid the piratical attentions of the Bonxies, and dive into their burrows carrying only a few tiny fish. The Project Puffin team attached tiny GPS trackers to the birds in order to find out where they were fishing, and you can read more about this work in an article that I've written for the Summer 2018 edition of the RSPB’s magazine “Nature’s Home.” 

The RSPB lobbies government on matters such as fishing policy and global warming, and scientific data is vital to informing decision-making. Marine ecology is a complicated matter, and although the puffins were really struggling, the gannet colony nearby was booming. Gannets feed on bigger prey like mackerel, and the birds were nesting all the way to the top of the cliffs. This allowed for great sketching opportunities.

By 11pm the midsummer sunset was skimming the horizon. As the Project Puffin team finished work there seemed to be puffins standing all around us on the cliff top. These were younger birds, visiting the colony to meet potential mates and size up nesting burrows for future years. Puffins can live for up to 40 years, and so there’s a chance that data from this project can be used to improve their chances of finding enough fish to raise chicks successfully in the future. 

Thursday 25 January 2018

Tweet of the Week

I've recorded a podcast for Radio 4's Tweet of the Day. The individual stories will be broadcast during the week beginning 22nd January, and then all five will be available as a podcast called Tweet of the week. It's easy to find on the BBC's radio iplayer, and I think it's available for the next year. Nearly all the stories are from my book, Wild Island, which is still available in book shops.

Wednesday 3 May 2017

Iron Gall Ink

Whilst working as Artist in Residence in the oak woods at Taynish, I made some drawings using Oak Gall Ink, also called Iron Gall Ink.

The oak trees grow down to the shore, where Common Seals snooze.

This was the standard ink used in Europe from the 5th century onwards. Galls are created when a tiny parasitic wasp lays its egg in the leaf, acorn or root of the oak. The grub causes the oak to make an abnormal growth which encloses the developing animal, providing it with protection. There are about 1300 species of parasitic wasp worldwide, all inducing different types of gall. I find it amazing when walking through Taynish, that these complex relationships are going on all around me. But it gets even more extraordinary. Some other wasps specialise in parasitising these wasps, and are called parasitoids. These may in turn be preyed upon by other specialist wasps, called hyperparasitoids. Other insects specialise in living harmlessly within particular galls, and these are called inquilines.

In Taynish the most common galls are Spangle Galls, which look like yellow sequins covering the underside of many of the leaves. For making ink, the most useful are Oak Marble Galls, which look like smooth woody marbles. The species of wasp causing this gall is called Andricus kollari. It has two life cycles every year, one in our native oak and the second in the Turkey Oak, and so marble galls are only found when these two trees grow near each other. When growing the gall, the oak tree incorporates high levels of tannic acid. By combining these tannins with iron, a durable ink can be made. Originally all ink came from Europe, with galls from Aleppo considered the best as they contain most tannin, but in 1735 the Turkey Oak was introduced into Britain. I searched Taynish in vain for marble galls, but a friend found me some on the opposite side of Loch Sween. Turkey Oaks must be growing there.

Marble oak galls.

Each gall is about 2cms across and has a tiny hole, showing that the wasp has hatched. I tried the traditional method of grinding the galls with pestle and mortar, but they were so hard that I ended up having to smash them with a hammer. I soaked the resulting powder in water for 24hrs and then strained it.

Iron can be added from rusty nails, but I found it easier to soak the sugar coating off some of my ferrous sulphate iron tablets and dissolve those. Although not essential, I added a little gum arabic, a sap from the gum acacia tree, which gives better flow to the ink. When I first applied the ink it was a pale brown, but in front of my eyes it oxidised into a beautiful rich black on the page. Over time the acidity of the ink can cause the paper to corrode. Documents produced a thousand years ago show this deterioration, so I don't know how the ink will behave over time. I quite like the idea that the drawing will have an active life of its own.

Tuesday 2 May 2017

Taynish - the celtic rainforest.

I've just finished a year as Artist in Residence for Scottish Natural Heritage at their Taynish reserve in Argyll. I wanted to post a few pictures from the final exhibition, to show the variety of wildlife in this west coast wilderness.

In Spring, both frogs and toads are common in the lochans, on the paths, and even in puddles.  I move them carefully out of danger, and take the opportunity for a close-up view. I have had just as much pleasure discovering the tiny inhabitants of the reserve, as from seeing the larger mammals like deer or red squirrels.

Little grebes, also known as Dabchicks, move from the sea-lochans onto fresh water to breed. In summer I heard their high wickering call, but they never let me approach very close. They were diving for small fish to feed their chicks, whilst damselflies skimmed above the waterlilies.

In autumn, the north wind brings Scandinavian raiders to plunder the berries of the rowan trees. It only takes a few days for these fieldfares to strip the trees of their fruit, before they move on south.

Bands of long-tailed tits move through the winter tree-tops, calling to each other to maintain contact. These tiny birds have little in the way of fat reserves, and so must search for a constant supply of insect food. During the cold nights they all huddle together in a ball to keep warm.

An exhibition of all the pictures from my year at the reserve will be at the Archway gallery in Lochgilphead in May, and will then travel to the SNH headquarters at Battleby later in the year.

Friday 22 July 2016

More Wild Island pictures.

Here are some more images from the book, "Wild Island. A Year in the Hebrides." I will be at the British Bird Fair at this year, on the Society of Wildlife Artists' stand. This will be from 19th-21st August at Rutland Water. I will have copies of the book, and some of the artwork too. If you want to find out more about the Hebrides or the RSPB's work on Oronsay, come along for a chat.

Nesting eider duck in bracken.

Corncrake calling (screen print).


Lapwing on its nest.