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15 Dec 2021

Recording ‘new’ species at Mar Lodge Estate NNR

Written by Andrew Painting, Ecologist
A mostly brown butterfly, with white spots around the edge of its wings, rests with its wings wide open on some bright green leaves.
Speckled wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria)
A slave-making ant, a microscopic fungus and species affected by climate change are among the most recent additions to the Mar Lodge Estate species list.

Biological recording is a really important part of the work of the Trust. This work includes things like counting the seabirds on St Kilda, monitoring the fortunes of the eight species of bat found at Threave Garden & Estate, and keeping up-to-date tallies of what wildlife can be found across the Trust’s properties.

Here at Mar Lodge Estate, we keep a record of all the species that have been found on the estate, and we update the list every year. In 2021, 8 ‘new’ species were recorded, bringing the total number of species recorded on the UK’s largest National Nature Reserve to an impressive 5,211!

Around 30 species have been added to the list in the last few years. Some of these have remarkable natural histories, and none more so than the blood-red ant, also known as the slave-maker ant. This amazing species raids the nests of other ant species, and brings back the larvae and pupae of these ants to its own nest. Once these young, ‘enslaved’ ants mature, they behave as if they are blood-red ants, and even assist with more raids on other nests themselves!

Some of the newly recorded species are benefitting from the estate’s conservation projects, like the greater butterfly-orchid, which was recorded for the first time ever on the estate in 2020. In fact, a lot of our orchid species seem to be doing well: creeping lady’s-tresses was recorded for the first time on the estate in over 60 years in 2021, while lesser twayblade, a tiny orchid found in woods and moors, increased by 233% in monitored plots. We’re also finding previously unrecorded populations of small-white orchid and common twayblade, suggesting these amazing plants are becoming more common on the estate.

While some of these species are responding to our work, many of the new species to make the list may well have been previously overlooked. This is probably the case with Anthracoidea bigelowii, a ‘smut fungus’ which can only be found living on a species of upland sedge. Dan Watson, the Trust’s upland specialist, was pleased to find this tiny organism this year high up on Cairn Toul, the UK’s fourth highest mountain. The fungus has been very infrequently recorded in Britain, but it’s hard to tell whether this is because it’s genuinely rare or because people simply aren’t looking for it. As Dan warns, ‘I have no doubt that things like this are under-recorded, but sometimes it is hard to know how under-recorded they actually are!’

“Our biological recording work is ‘filling in the gaps’ of what we know and don’t know, giving us a more complete understanding of Scotland’s nature.”
Andrew Painting
Ecologist at Mar Lodge Estate

All of these records tell us about long-term population trends for our wildlife, and how species are responding to changes in the environment. ‘Refinding’ old records to see how populations are faring is a great way of understanding how the climate crisis is affecting our uplands. This year, a group of intrepid botanists went on a three-day expedition into the mountains, searching for extremely rare arctic-alpine plants including Highland saxifrage, Issler’s clubmoss and curved wood-rush. These records, and subsequent monitoring, will show us how change is affecting an ecosystem that is perhaps more imperilled by the climate crisis than any other in Scotland.

A close-up view of a clubmoss plant. Its bright green fronds spread across the ground, among twigs and ferns.
Issler’s Clubmoss is a tricky species to identify and is a specialty of the Cairngorms.

Sadly, the climate crisis looks set to have a big impact on our uplands. But climate change is also bringing new species to Mar Lodge Estate. It is likely that a heating climate is part of the reason why two new species of butterfly the speckled wood and comma have been added to the list since 2018. In 2020, ranger Paul Bolton and his family were happy to spot a nuthatch on their bird feeder. This charming woodland bird has been spreading north over the last few decades, but remains very rare in Aberdeenshire. Other birds like blackcap and chiffchaff, which were previously rare at Mar Lodge Estate, are now much more common. While this may sound positive, most of the species being ‘pushed north’ are expected to suffer overall population declines. This makes our habitat restoration work all the more important.

A grey and orange nuthatch bird perched on the trunk of a tree.
Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

The natural world is constantly changing, sometimes for better but unfortunately often for worse. People have been recording the species found at Mar Lodge Estate for well over a hundred years. All this effort gives us a really great way of understanding how the landscape is changing, and what we can do to make this special place even better for nature. Next time you visit Mar Lodge Estate, why not make a list of all the species you see?

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