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8 Sep 2021

Tales from the Trust’s teams #2: Crathes Castle, Garden & Estate

Written by Roddy Hamilton, North East Ranger
‘The Last Supper’


My name is Roddy Hamilton. I'm a ranger for the National Trust for Scotland.
I'm a ranger in the North East region covering 10 properties and part of my remit is to foster nature connection among community groups and especially young people.
And when asked for a story, one which occurred to me was this one: of the burying beetle because it's an example of when a nature connection really worked.

I used to run the children's group 'Nature Detectives' at Leith Hall and in one of these meetings we had a theme of nature's recyclers. And as luck would have it -- not lucky in terms of the mouse but lucky in terms of the theme -- I came across a dead field mouse.
It must have been gotten at by a cat. And in the course of doing this, I thought: well, do you bring this up?
And actually it led to a really good conversation about what might recycle this mouse.

Burying beetles are about this size and they have these antennae. The antennae are chemoreceptors, which can detect the smell of carrion or a recently deceased corpse, from a distance of metres to beyond half a kilometre. What happens is all these beetles convene on the corpse; they have a big fight; the males fight the males and the females fight the females.
And in the end, what you have is a male who's the victor and a female who's the victor. After that, it's a bit of a love story!

The two victors get together and settle down to start a family. The female lays her eggs around the carcass, but before she does that, they actually work together to move the carcass to a safer place.
They'll partially bury it and between them they exfoliate the dead mouse, or whatever it is.
So, they'll nibble the hair off and they will secrete an antibacterial and anti-fungal exudate from their mouth and anus, to cover the rodent, to halt the decaying process and to stop anything else from eating it.

Once the female lays her eggs around the soil around the corpse and they hatch, mum and dad feed the larvae. The larvae will actually beg, and mum and dad will feed them.
Then, eventually the larvae will move from the soil to the carrion and eat it, from the inside out, thereby recycling that part of nature's waste.
And what will happen is the female will only lay an amount of eggs appropriate to the size of the corpse. In some species, should there be any surplus of larvae, there is no waste because the larvae will simply be eaten by the parents.
Waste not, want not!

So, the surviving larvae fattened up will then go on to their own lives and complete the cycle by detecting a corpse and going through the whole thing again.
It's a fairly horrific story but also quite a fascinating one, and it was pure happenstance that it happened on that day.
Later on that same day, we had pitfall traps set up, which are small cups in the ground with the rim at ground level -- basically a yogurt cup in the ground, baited with ham.
The idea is that these ground-dwelling invertebrates come along and stumble into these, for you to then come back later and check what's in it.
Well, we found one of these beetles in there.
When you smell inside the cup, it smells of old cheese or cheesy feet.
And the kids were amazed by this, having this beetle there and the smell of it.
It's just yuck, but kind of good as well!

So, it was a good day and an example of how pure happenstance and coincidence can help that nature connection thing.
And I like the fact it's a smell, this cheesy smell, because I think that smells are something that people retain a lot longer and really stay in the memory.

So, all in all, inspiring the next generation of nature lovers by pure coincidence.

‘The Last Supper’ is the second of four tales from our front-line staff, showing how their dedication contributes to the Trust’s mission of conservation.

Of course, these are just four examples from the hundreds of initiatives that our teams are responsible for, day in and day out. We are so proud of the love shown for Scotland by all our staff and volunteers! We work to protect the places we all love, so as many people as possible can explore and enjoy the very best of Scotland.

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