IT was a year when the wonders of the natural world burst into life across Scotland's nature reserves as trees bloomed with rarely-seen blossom and endangered wildlife showed signs of coming back from the brink.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has hailed 2019 as a "spectacular" year for plants, animals and visitors to the country's wild places as it set out the highlights recorded by its rangers during the past 12 months.

Among the spectacles witnessed was the appearance of a black grouse at Scotland's oldest national nature reserve for the first time in more than 120 years, a rare flowering of aspen trees, and the return of the UK's oldest Arctic Tern more than three decades after it was first spotted.

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There was also good news for the country's seabird population with one breeding site reporting a huge increase in the numbers of gannets roosting there since the last count was taken five years ago.


Flowering aspen at the Muir of Dinnet. Pic: SNH

The year got off to a remarkable start at Muir of Dinnet in Aberdeenshire,  with the flowering of aspen trees in early March, an event which happens just a handful of times a century.

Aspen rarely bloom because they reproduce asexually by sending up shoots from their own roots and creating ‘clone trees’, with the last blossoming occurring in Scotland in 1996.

Lying within Cairngorms National Park, the reserve is a mosaic of wetlands, woods and moors, and its aspen woods is one of only a few in Scotland. The wood is also home to rare species, such as aspen bristle moss or large poplar longhorn beetle.

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Love, or at least the desire to reproduce, was also in the air at the Highland nature reserve at Beinn Eighe where the first ever black grouse was spotted displaying its mating 'dance' known as the 'lek'. 

The male birds put on a flamboyant display to attract female birds, showing off their tail fans, jumping and spinning, though the dance can often turn violent, with male grouse pecking and kicking each other.

Black grouse are in "significant long term decline" in Scotland, with numbers falling by more than 50% between 1994 and 2018.


Black grouse. Pic: SNH/Rory Richardson

Chris Donald, SNH's Operations Manager for South Highland, said the Beinn Eighe success was "a significant sign" of how the species is faring in the area.

He said: "In the 1800s black grouse were widespread within Scotland, but their range was then reduced to a core area.

"This is the first black grouse record for Beinn Eighe since the late 1800s and certainly the first since it was declared a national nature reserve in the 1950s.

"We've seen four lekking males and we would suspect there are at least as many females as well."

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He added: "Black grouse lekking is probably the best theatre in Scotland as far as nature is concerned."

At Forvie nature reserve in the northeast, the UK’s oldest ever arctic tern was found. First ringed as a chick at Buddon Ness in Angus, the tern was discovered at the SNH nature reserve in Aberdeenshire and found to be 32 years old, almost to the day. An average tern lives for only about 13 years.

One good tern deserves another, and in June the Isle of May saw the birth of a single roseate tern - named because of their pink underside - the only chick of its type in Scotland.


Puffin on Isle of May. Pic: SNH-Lorne Gill

The island was home to another record with 14,000 visitors braving the boat trip across the Firth of Fortyh, the fifth year in a row that numbers have increased.

There was also good news from the Isle of Noss, where 13,765 pairs of gannets were counted in 2019, a 17 percent increase since the last count in 2014.

Stuart MacQuarrie, SNH’s Head of Nature Reserves, said: “Scotland’s national nature reserves are special places for wildlife. But they are also wonderful spots to visit, enjoy a spectacular view and catch sight of an elusive otter or amazing eagle.

"Our nature reserves are key to ensure we have a nature-rich future in Scotland.”