May 252017
 

By Ian Baird.

Every time a report is written about the Harbour Board’s expansion plans into the Bay of Nigg, there is invariably a reference to a Scottish Enterprise report which justified the project in economic terms, along the lines of, ‘An independent study, commissioned by Scottish Enterprise, estimates that the development will generate an additional £1 billion per annum to the economy by 2035 and will create an additional 7,000 equivalent jobs.’
But that Report was written in December 2013, three and a half years ago and therefore pre-dating the current prolonged oil downturn.

Before finally committing to the project in December when a contract was agreed with Dragados, surely in the light of what is acknowledged to be a significantly changed trading environment, the assumptions and projections made in the Biggar Report should have been reviewed?

Had this been done with any vigour, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that the business case for £350+ million development no longer stands up to scrutiny and proceeding with the development on that basis cannot be justified.

Let’s look at some aspects of the Report from the perspective of 2017.

1) Harbour Capacity: One of the most compelling arguments emanating from the Harbour Board as justification for the expansion was that the harbour was working at or near full capacity. The argument was echoed in the Report which stated:

“It is clear additional capacity is required to retain activity in the oil and gas sector in Scotland.  If this capacity is not developed, then there is a risk that new and existing demand will be lost to Norway. Capacity constraints at the Harbour are also likely to hinder existing and potential users from developing new market opportunities in areas such as renewable energy, decommissioning, passenger ferries and cruise liners.”

As the construction of the expansion begins, is the existing harbour still running at or near full capacity? The Report noted that arrivals to the port in 2012 numbered in excess of 8,100. Based on the Board’s statements we have to assume this figure is close to maximum capacity. By 2014 arrivals were very similar at 7,937, but in 2015 they dropped to 7,428 and then precipitously to 6,462 in 2016 (unpublished).

That’s more than a 20% drop in traffic activity from the 2012 high to 2016. In short, the harbour is no longer working at or near to full capacity. Of course, had the arrivals levelled off at around the 8,000 mark, it could be legitimately argued that capacity issues were inhibiting expansion but with a 20% drop in activity it is clear that this is quite simply a downturn in business.

To update, the first 4 months of 2017 are no better than the equivalent period last year; and so just as the heavy plant moves in to the Bay, annual arrivals are around 1600 fewer per year than when ‘at or near maximum capacity’.

When challenged about declining arrivals at the 2016 AGM, Chief Executive Colin Parker argued lost business because of larger vessels being unable to enter the harbour were the main cause of the decline. This seems a curious statement given that vessels as large as 20,000 tonnes have used the harbour and yet the average gross tonnage is only about 4,000 tonnes. Two of the largest ships using the harbour are the passenger ferries plying to the Orkney and Shetland Isles. They each have a gross tonnage of 11, 720.

How many arrivals were there of vessels with a gross tonnage of over 10,000 tonnes, other than the ferries, using the port in a year? In 2015, only 21 out of 7,428, or .002%; in 2016, ever fewer at 11. Apart from the ferries, the upper 50% of the tonnage capacity range (10,000 to 20,000 tonnes) is virtually unused.

Where is the evidence that lack of size capacity is inhibiting business?

Fig. 1: The Harbour Board claims the existing harbour is too small for larger vessels. This graph shows that, apart from passenger and freight ferries running to the Northern Isles, the upper end of the tonnage capacity range from 7000 tonnes upward is barely utilised by oil-related, cargo or other vessels.

2) The new market opportunities identified in the Reportrenewable energy, decommissioning, passenger ferries and cruise liners – are central in the projections of increasing traffic to the expanded facility. How well does potential success in these markets stand up to scrutiny from today’s perspective? Let us look at each in turn:

Renewable Energy: Despite initial enthusiasm for chasing business in this market, the Harbour Board has been very quiet about prospects in this sector since the Report’s publication.

There has probably been a belated recognition that weaknesses in the local infrastructure (inadequate roads network for heavy and wide loads, lack of fabrication facilities) and being close to neither centres of turbine and blade manufacture nor to the offshore areas identified as potential for offshore wind arrays, means that there are no specific advantages, and several disadvantages, for suppliers of renewable energy components considering using Aberdeen as a transport base.

Biggar suggests a need for creating industry clusters around key infrastructure investment locations, and that one such cluster should incorporate the supply chain for offshore renewables by developing the land beside Nigg Bay as a marine renewable cluster in Aberdeen City and Shire.

Fine words, but despite the fact that construction of the harbour expansion is under way, there seems little action towards this suggested initiative and there seems inadequate land available to develop a suitably well-equipped cluster as proposed.

Decommissioning: Although the total decommissioning market is huge, Aberdeen’s potential to handle significant elements of it will again be limited by onshore infrastructural weaknesses and by the lack of deep-water berthing. Since the Report was published, many other ports in Scotland, North-east England and Norway have signalled their determination to secure a share of the decommissioning market.

Many, such as Dundee, Cromarty, Kirkwall and Scapa Flow are already well ahead in extending infrastructure and capacity. In what will be a highly competitive scramble for work, it is difficult to see Aberdeen, coming late into the game with improved facilities in 2020, attracting any more than relatively minor contracts.

Ferries: Apart from its inclusion in the Report as one of the potential markets for the expanded court, no evidence or research is offered to substantiate the sector as a potential market. The Northern Isles are the only destinations with a regular ferry service to Aberdeen. The existing ferries are large and, although running near to full capacity at peak holiday periods, for much of the year they are running well below.

At current passenger and freight usage levels, larger ferries plying those routes would not be cost-effective. NorthLink have not identified any need, nor expressed any interest, in introducing larger ferries to Kirkwall and Lerwick.

Cruise Ships: The Report predicts that up to 40 cruise ships could be attracted to the new harbour each year but there are quite a number of qualifications to that figure:

“If a new harbour is built and [if] improvements are made to surrounding roads infrastructure then this may make the harbour a more attractive destination for visiting ships. For example road improvements may make it easier for coaches to access to the quayside, which would make it easier for cruise companies to organise excursions for passengers. The additional space may even make it possible to create dedicated visitor reception facilities. [My emphasis]”

The projection of 40 cruise ships per annum is therefore very speculative. While it is true that the average size of cruise ships is rising, ruling out many of them from the opportunity of docking in the existing harbour, it does not follow that a sufficiently large harbour will attract those larger ships. A bigger swimming pool doesn’t necessarily mean more (or larger) swimmers, perhaps just more space per swimmer.

If we compare the new harbour with, for example, Shetland’s port at Lerwick, which is projected to attract 80 cruise ships in 2018, there must be some doubt about its attractiveness as a destination, requiring as it will a bus journey with views (and possibly smells) of a sewage works, possibly an incinerator, Altens industrial estate and a complex onward route to get to either Aberdeen city centre or to Deeside.

In fact, all of the Report’s projections of future economic gains are qualified by the recognition that for their predictions to be realised it would be necessary ‘to upgrade the roads infrastructure in the surrounding area’.

We are now embarking on a £350 million development, not only in the absence of any such planned upgrade, but with the economics of the North Sea oil industry considerably changed for the worse, and with technological changes and innovations which lessen Aberdeen’s ability to attract certain kinds of business (for example the commissioning of the Pioneering Spirit vessel which can lift and transport complete platform topsides of up to 48,000 tonnes to a limited number of deep-water berths).

There is no doubt that on the completion of the new harbour, some additional types and sizes of vessels will visit the port.

The question is: will they do so in sufficient numbers and frequency to justify a £360 million investment and the permanent loss of a valuable amenity to the local community?

To fulfil the expectations of the Biggar Report, harbour activity not only has to regain the current 20% loss of traffic but has to utilise to near capacity the additional 25% berthing the expansion will enable. That’s 45% above current activity.

Given that the mainstay of the harbour is oil-related business and that it is not contested that it is an industry in decline, there must be a huge question mark over the prediction that in Year 20 of the Report’s projections the net economic impact of Aberdeen Harbour in the City and Shire will be 12,350 jobs and £1.8 billion GVA (Gross Value Added).

The questions are these therefore. What re-evaluation of the Biggar Report was undertaken prior to the final decision to proceed with the expansion into the Bay of Nigg? Is anyone from the Harbour Board, Biggar Economics or Scottish Enterprise prepared to stand by the projections in the 2013 Report? If not, on what basis is the project proceeding?

Sources: Economic impact of Aberdeen Harbour Nigg Bay Development – A final report to Scottish Enterprise, Biggar Economics, December 2013

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Apr 282017
 

With thanks to Martin Ford.

Aberdeenshire Greens have launched their manifesto for the 2017 council election.

The manifesto sets out the priorities and approach for Green councillors elected to Aberdeenshire Council this May.

The Scottish Green Party is contesting five of the nineteen council wards in Aberdeenshire. There is currently one Green councillor on Aberdeenshire Council.

Rachel Shanks, Green candidate for Stonehaven and Lower Deeside, said:

“The more Green councillors elected to Aberdeenshire Council this May, the more influence they will have. We want to prioritise investment in education, better local public transport and protecting Aberdeenshire’s special environment.

“Inevitably, Aberdeenshire Council is going to face some tough challenges in the years ahead. Green voices need to be heard in the council chamber when the Council decides how to respond. The last five years have shown a Green presence has made for a better Council. We want to build on that this May.”

West Garioch Green candidate Richard Openshaw said:

“The election on 4 May is a local election. It’s about local issues, not national ones.

“We’re proud of the Green successes on Aberdeenshire Council since 2012, like funding for youth work, traffic calming, cycling and walking. Our manifesto for the next five years sets out what we will prioritise going forward.

“The forecast rise in pupil numbers in Aberdeenshire schools means additional resources for education are essential. I was appalled at the education cuts advocated by the Lib Dems and Conservatives in their proposed 2017/18 Council budget. Green councillors will give priority to spending on schools and resist education cuts.”

Mearns candidate Karen Allan said:

“I particularly welcome the manifesto commitments on road safety and tackling climate change.”

East Garioch councillor and Green candidate Martin Ford said:

“A significant number of proposals from the 2012 Aberdeenshire Green manifesto have been agreed by the Council and have become Council policy. Greens elected to Aberdeenshire Council this May will similarly seek cross-party support to get Green proposals adopted.”

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Apr 282017
 

With thanks to Aberdeenshire SNP.

Aboyne, Upper Deeside & Donside SNP councillor Geva Blackett has written to Aberdeenshire Council’s Director of Infrastructure Services, Stephen Archer, requesting that the cost of a functional bridge on the A939 at Gairnshiel is built into the council’s Capital Plan as a matter of urgency to save the Grade 1 listed bridge currently in use.

In her letter, Cllr Blackett says:

“Almost exactly five years ago, this beautiful bridge was closed for some weeks to allow extensive – and expensive repairs – to take place and not for the first time.

“The resulting 40-mile detour caused chaos for motorists and had a severe impact on the fragile economies of Braemar, Ballater, Strathdon and Tomintoul.

“Now we find that despite the 18 ton weight limit imposed, even more expensive and extensive repairs are required in the near future and as traffic increases with the Snow Road linking Grantown to Blairgowrie gains in popularity, so too will the need for major repairs as the bridge is no longer fit for purpose”

Cllr Blackett’s letter points out that when the current bridge was built after the 1745 Jacobite uprising to form part of the Military Road, cars, coaches and 38 ton lorries did not exist. 

“Imagine for one moment a Chippendale chair” continues Cllr Blackett’s letter

You would not allow the public to continually sit on it and break it; you would say that people can look at it and admire it but if they want to sit down they should use the functional chair placed alongside. The same argument should be applied to this bridge which plays an important part of our built heritage, is of historical importance and could be a tourist attraction with picnic tables and proper parking”

Cllr Blackett’s case for an adjacent bridge is supported by a candidate from Perth & Kinross and by a candidate from Moray, both of whom have written to Aberdeenshire Council.

Alison Mullholland standing for Blairgowrie & the Glens Ward in Perth & Kinross said:

“I understand that historically, repair work necessitated by previous damage, took some weeks to be completed. During which time, the resulting forty mile diversion curtailed the number of tourists travelling along the A93 through Glenshee to Blairgowrie and west to Kirkmichael and beyond.

“Therefore I would strongly support consideration of an adjacent replacement bridge, thus facilitating the repair and subsequent preservation of the beautiful and historical Gairnshiel Bridge, whilst allowing all forms of traffic access via the new bridge.”

Angus Anderson standing for Moray’s Speyside Glenlivet ward said:

“The purpose of my writing to you today is to make you fully aware of the significant financial impact businesses in Tomintoul and beyond will suffer should the bridge have to continually close for repairs. One business owner advised me that over one hundred and fifty coaches visit his shop each year and virtually all of them arrive via the A939 from Aberdeenshire.

“There is also obviously a preservation and historical concern given the bridge’s age and status and I would urge you to consider that too. I support Councillor Blackett’s request that a new bridge be factored into the Capital Plan and thus reassure the businesses in Tomintoul and beyond that Aberdeenshire Council is taking a long term and pragmatic approach to the importance of this bridge to the Snow Road route.”

A 60 second video by Cllr Blackett is also being released on social media.

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Apr 202017
 

With thanks to Emma Brown.

Today sees the launch of a stunning new photo book showcasing one of Britain’s favourite mammals and at the same time making the case for the expansion of its native woodland home.

The Red Squirrel: A future in the forest features jaw-dropping imagery by award-winning wildlife photographer Neil McIntyre, who has spent the last 20 years documenting the lives of the red squirrels near his home in the Cairngorms National Park.

Neil’s astonishing portfolio of images, captured deep in the heart of one of Scotland’s largest remaining fragments of Caledonian Pine Forest, is accompanied by insightful and evocative words from celebrated writer Polly Pullar, to create a beautiful and thought-provoking book which aims to raise awareness of the plight of the red squirrel.

With native woodland covering just 2% of Scotland’s land area, red squirrel populations are fragmented on isolated islands of trees and their long-term future remains uncertain.

Conservation photographer and Director of SCOTLAND: The Big Picture, the book’s publisher, Peter Cairns said:

“Neil’s beautiful images shine a unique light on one of Scotland’s best-loved mammals, but squirrels need forests just as much as forests need squirrels. I hope this book will ignite fresh conversations about that crucial link.”

The publication of The Red Squirrel: A future in the forest follows a successful crowdfunding campaign, which ran throughout November 2016 and was supported by over 500 backers.
It is the first in a series of stunning conservation books from SCOTLAND: The Big Picture, a project which works to amplify the case for a wilder Scotland.

The Red Squirrel: A future in the forest is available now from www.scotlandbigpicture.com.

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Apr 132017
 

Port of Malaga. Photo by Daniel Bichler.

By Ian Baird.

When in December Aberdeen Harbour Board’s Chairman Alistair MacKenzie signed the contract with Dragados’ representative in Scotland – Daniel Paunero Alonso – to build the harbour’s £350 million expansion into the Bay of Nigg, it was the culmination of an an idea which had been conceived six years earlier.

Against stiff local opposition, with multiple planning and maritime applications to overcome, and complex loan agreements to negotiate, Chief Executive Colin Parker, the Chairman, and his fellow Board members must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when finally reaching the stage where building could commence.

But Daniel Alonso would have had a smile on his lips too. He had helped secure a huge contract for his firm in his operating region of Scotland.

Three years earlier, Daniel’s star wasn’t shining so brightly. In October 2013 in his then capacity of Manager of Dragados in Spain, together with Sanchez Domines, President of Dragados’ parent company Sando, he was summoned to testify as a defendant in a tribunal case in Malaga. The pair’s presence was required to answer allegations of irregularities in projects undertaken by the two companies at the Port of Malaga in 2008.

The Port was claiming losses amounting to a total of €5.3 million as a result of work carried out which subsequently proved not to be done to specification. The prosecution in the case, which is still ongoing after 5 years of investigation, is demanding a total of 26 years of imprisonment for 5 directors and engineers of the two companies for the crimes of document falsification, embezzlement and fraud.

Is this important as far as the Harbour Board is concerned?

Well, it may be the end of the planning and approval stage, but it’s only the beginning of what will be, at a minimum, three years of construction. Entrusting Dragados with this major project should mean that the Harbour Board has exercised due diligence in satisfying itself that the company has a sufficiently impressive record to give them confidence that the construction will be completed on time, on budget and to the required specification.

Is it possible that in their haste to ensure that planning, financial and contractual matters all fell into place, the Harbour Board, inexperienced in awarding such a large contract and struggling to raise the necessary finance, were overly hasty in agreeing a deal with Dragados, lured by the most attractive tender price to the exclusion of other considerations?

Had the Harbour Board investigated the details of the problems in Malaga, they would have found that there were two projects that ran into problems after their completion.

what happened in Malaga should, at the very least, have sounded a warning bell or two

The first was at the South cruise ship mooring in the Port which had been built in a joint venture between Sando and Dragados. Following a slight collision with the mooring by a cruise ship in 2008, an investigation into the damage to the pier established that fewer, and thinner, pilings had been used in its construction than had been specified.

In this case a State General Inspection concluded that the discrepancy in value between what was paid for by the Port and what was built by the two companies amounted to €1.8 million.

The second project which ran into trouble at the Port was at container dock no. 9. This was also a joint venture with Sando, but in this case Dragados was the leading partner.

After a particular vessel was unable to access the dock, it was discovered that the excavated depth of the mooring was less than had been specified and, additionally, that debris had been dumped in it. In this case the discrepancy between what was charged for by the companies and what was delivered was estimated at €3.6 million.

In addition to these very specific problems with a failure to build to specifications, there were also in both cases significant cost hikes.

The budget estimate for building the South mooring was €8 million but eventually cost €12.21 million – 50% over budget; the budget estimate for container dock 9 was €28.2 million but eventually cost €35.9 million – 25% over budget.

From the perspective of Aberdeen Harbour Board what happened in Malaga should, at the very least, have sounded a warning bell or two. Of course it is true that Dragados have been involved as contractors in many major projects without landing in court as in this highlighted case. But globally their record of completing projects on time and on budget where they are a major contractor on very large projects is very patchy [1].

By giving Dragados the major responsibility for a £350 million (budgeted) project (almost 10 times as much as the budgets for the two Malaga projects combined), has the Board considered a) the likelihood and b) the implications, of a cost increase and/or a delayed completion time?

Let’s say there was a 20% increase in costs and a 30% increase in construction time. Can the Board finance, for example, a £420 million project which takes four years to build instead of three?

Even if they can, will future business be able to service the loan or will the cruise ship and decommissioning markets prove to be elusive in the face of aggressive competition and a possible severe economic downturn? The combination of a cost escalation, a delayed completion date and a continuation of the oil downturn in the North Sea could prove to be a fatal combination for the Harbour Board’s ambitions.

if the Bay is to be lost it should at least be for very tangible benefits for Aberdeen

This article does not accuse Daniel Alonso of being complicit or having any knowledge of the failings in the two projects in Malaga and perhaps not too much should be read into the fact that he is now in Scotland rather than managing the company’s home territory.

But it seems extraordinary that with so much at stake, the Harbour Board is totally reliant on a company which has proved in the past that its management team failed to ensure adherence to specifications on two major harbour projects and exceeded budgeted costs so spectacularly.

Historically, one of the benefits to local communities of Trust Ports has been that no profits are dispensed to shareholders. That has meant that all profits have been re-invested in port improvements to help increase traffic and enhance local economic activity, as indeed has been the case with Aberdeen Harbour Trust until now.

But the absence of shareholders can have an adverse effect when projects that require external financing are considered. Because there is no financial risk to any individual Board Member or employee, the Board is in a position to back projects knowing that it is risk-free from their own personal perspective. That same phenomenon was responsible for the reckless trading by bankers prior to the 2008 crash.

If this project fails badly, either because of delays, escalating costs, unpredicted market conditions, or a combination of all three, the individuals who currently comprise the Board and the Executive will quietly retire (Chief Executive Colin Parker has already announced his imminent retirement), leaving a badly crippled Trust Port to recover from a gamble which didn’t pay off.

The residents of Torry who opposed the harbour development in the Bay of Nigg did so because of the loss of the Bay as an amenity, and the resulting general degradation of the local environment through increased traffic and pollution.

Whether the harbour would ultimately prove a commercial success or not has not been a major consideration. But now that it appears about to become a reality, I’m sure the concensus will be that if the Bay is to be lost it should at least be for very tangible benefits for Aberdeen and the wider community.

It would be a cruel blow indeed if the Bay was sacrificed for a speculative project which ultimately proves under-utilised and a financial millstone to the Harbour Board, and the Bay of Nigg is destroyed for no useful gain.

Notes:

  1. To cite just three examples, Dragados USA is 3 years behind schedule and $223 million over budget in a tunnel-boring project in Seattle; the company was removed from the Florida Department of Transportation’s list of qualified contractors because of project delays and other problems, it being stated that on some projects they “have a variety of materials and workmanship issues that will have to be addressed before FDOT will accept the work.”; and Los Angeles Metro Agency refused to give a major contract to Dragados, despite being the cheapest bidder, because they considered they had a high probability of exposing the agency to cost overruns and project delays,

Sources:

Dársena Case’ by Marta Sánchez Esparza / Malaga, El Mundo,  23/10/2013
http://www.elmundo.es/elmundo/2013/10/13/andalucia_malaga/1381659778.html

Article, by Agustin Rivera, El Confidencial, 5/10/2013
http://www.elconfidencial.com/espana/andalucia/2013-10-05/el-presidente-de-sando-imputado-por-el-agujero-del-puerto-de-malaga_37380/

Article by S. Sánchez, Málaga, Málaga Hoy , 16/10/2013
http://www.malagahoy.es/malaga/presidente-Sando-descarga-tecnicos-puerto_0_743925794.html

‘Sacramento sewer contractor faced delays, minority hiring violations’ The Sacramento Bee, June 4, 2016
http://www.sacbee.com/news/investigations/the-public-eye/article81843937.html

‘Beleaguered Seattle tunnel project facing $223M cost overrun, 3-year delay’, Construction Dive, July 25, 2016
http://www.constructiondive.com/news/beleaguered-seattle-tunnel-project-facing-223m-cost-overrun-3-year-delay/423164/

‘The prosecution asks for 26 years of imprisonment for five people responsible for port works’, Ignacio San Martin, La Cadena SER, 16 November 2016 http://cadenaser.com/emisora/2016/11/18/ser_malaga/1479473619_856001.html

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Apr 132017
 

An award-winning Aberdonian film-maker is celebrating the success of her crowdfunding campaign after receiving an endorsement from BBC wildlife personality Chris Packham. With thanks to Lisa Marley Press.

Filmmaker Lisa Marley’s film Project Wolf will follow an experimental ‘human wolf pack’ through the Scottish Highlands.

Lisa Marley (26), from Westhill, Aberdeenshire, is crowdfunding the film – Project Wolf – which will follow charity Trees for Life’s experimental ‘human wolf pack’ through the Scottish Highlands as it examines how mimicking the disturbance effects of missing large predators would affect red deer populations in the Caledonian Forest, in an effort to limit their impact on new growth while grazing.

BBC personality Chris Packham, who is vocal in his support for conservation projects, is a fan of Lisa’s last film – Red Sky on the Black Isle – and has leant his support to her new venture.

He says,

“These grass roots, real and reactive films come straight from the hearts of creatives who not only care but motivate their skills to take action; action at a time when we are desperate for people to stop musing and moaning and actually stand up and be counted.

“It’s time to shout above the noise – Red Sky on the Black Isle did this – so please help Lisa turn her talents onto the exciting subject of rewilding.”

Passing her initial target after just two weeks and ensuring the film will be made, Lisa is now working towards her second goal which will allow for an extended shoot in the Highlands. Wildlife and conservation enthusiasts who wish to donate to Lisa’s campaign can do so at www.indiegogo.com/at/projectwolf until April 19, in exchange for perks ranging from guide books and gift cards to production credits and invitations to film festivals.

Lisa says,

“I’ve been overwhelmed by the support for Project Wolf. Now that I have passed my first funding goal, the film will definitely be made.

“But there is still some way to go – I’ve now set a second target which will allow me to spend longer in the Highlands with the ‘human wolf pack’ and with my interview subjects. I’ll also be able to use more advanced equipment to better tell the story of rewilding in Scotland.

“When I first heard about Trees for Life’s work, I was instantly hooked. It’s an incredible project that has the potential to make a real impact on the regeneration of the Caledonian Forest, and I can’t wait to get out into the wilderness to experience it for myself.”

Alan Watson Featherstone, founder of Trees for Life, adds,

“This film will give vital and significant publicity to our Project Wolf, which seeks to demonstrate an innovative approach to helping a new generation of native trees to grow in the Caledonian Forest. By using volunteers to patrol the edge of existing woodlands at unpredictable hours in the night we will be replicating the natural disturbance effect of missing top predators such as the wolf, thereby enabling young trees to grow successfully without being overgrazed by deer.

“The project has potential significance for many other areas in Scotland, and Lisa’s film will be an essential means of communicating this message to a wide audience. I urge everyone to support this very worthy project – your donation will make a real difference to the restoration of the Caledonian Forest in the Highlands. “

Lisa’s last film, Red Sky on the Black Isle, also continues to make waves both in the film and wildlife communities. Translated into multiple languages and screened around the world, it picked up the Little Audience Prize at the Raptor Filmz Short Scottish Film Festival last year. It will be shown at the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York this October.

The Project Wolf campaign runs on Indiegogo until April 19. For more information, and to donate, visit www.indiegogo.com/at/projectwolf

To follow Lisa’s progress, follow Project Wolf on Facebook at www.facebook.com/projectwolffilm or follow Lisa on Twitter @procuriosity

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Apr 072017
 

With thanks to Richard Bunting.

In an exciting step forward for the biodiversity of Scotland’s forests, Trees for Life has successfully encouraged the rare but ecologically important aspen tree to flower under controlled conditions – enabling it to produce much-needed seeds that can be used for propagation.

Trials to stimulate aspen branches to flower at the charity’s Dundreggan Conservation Estate in Glenmoriston, near Loch Ness, have progressed significantly this spring, following some initial success and experimentation over the past two years.

Trees for Life may now be able to secure its own source of aspen seed to dramatically increase the availability of aspens for planting in native woodlands and to strengthen the species’ genetic diversity.

“This is a major breakthrough for us that offers hope for the beleaguered but hugely important aspen tree in the Highlands,” said Doug Gilbert, Dundreggan Operations Manager at Trees for Life.

“Having a seed supply to grow a new generation of aspen will help us transform the fortunes of a beautiful tree that provides a habitat for a wide range of organisms including mosses, lichens and invertebrates – many of which are rare and endangered in Scotland.”

Aspen is thought to have suffered more from deforestation than any other native tree in Scotland ­– largely because it rarely flowers or set seeds in the country, for reasons that are still unclear. This means that once it has been lost from an area, aspen is very unlikely to return on its own.

In Scotland, aspen reproduces mainly by new shoots growing from the roots of mature trees. As these shoots remain joined to the parent tree, the new trees are all the same organism – restricted to growing on the edge of existing aspen stands, and limiting the aspen’s genetic diversity.

“Across the Highlands, aspen has been reduced to small fragmented stands – sometimes a handful of old trees growing off the same root system – that are geographically isolated and unable to provide the habitat for the many species that depend on them,” said Doug Gilbert.

Growing new trees from seed is a key solution, but collecting seeds from aspen in the wild is almost impossible. The few aspen that flower in the Highlands are often in remote or inaccessible locations, and – as male and female flowers can appear at different times – pollination rarely takes place. Even when it does, the period for seed collection is extremely short and easily missed.

Emma Beckinsale, Trees for Life’s tree nursery assistant hand pollinates aspen; female catkins on aspen tree in Trees for Life’s tree nursery.

For the past 26 years, Trees for Life has instead had to rely on taking root cuttings to propagate new aspens for its forest restoration work. This is labour intensive and time consuming, making aspen saplings expensive and less available than other trees that are readily propagated from seed.

However, the charity is now successfully stimulating female and male aspen branches to flower at a scale that should produce a significant amount of seed.

Unlike most trees ­– where male and female flowers occur on the same tree – aspens are either male or female. Trees flower in March and April, before the leaves appear, with both male and female trees producing catkins. Pollinated female catkins ripen in early summer and release tiny seeds – each weighing about one ten-thousandth of a gram.

Under carefully controlled conditions, Trees for Life has now successfully hand pollinated female aspen catkins with pollen collected from male trees.

Those catkins will ripen in a few weeks time to produce seeds, which will be sown in the Dundreggan Tree Nursery to produce a new generation of young aspen trees.

Trees for Life has previously grown 3,000-4,000 aspen trees a year for planting in the Caledonian Forest. Being able to grow aspens from seed would allow the charity to significantly increase this number, as well as enhancing the aspen’s genetic diversity.

This is major progress in a project to restore aspen to the Highlands, which Trees for Life launched in 1991. The project has also involved innovative aspen grafting experiments, carried out in partnership with John Parrott of the charity Coille Alba, who has also pioneered much of the work around stimulating aspen to flower under controlled conditions.

Volunteers grow more than 60,000 trees a year at Trees for Life’s Dundreggan Tree Nursery, including during the charity’s popular Conservation Weeks. To find out more about Trees for Life’s award-winning work to restore the Caledonian Forest and how to help, see www.treesforlife.org.uk.

More info on Aspen:

  • Although aspen occurs throughout Britain, it is most common in north and west Scotland, and also occurs in Shetland and the Hebrides. The tree is characterised by its shimmering foliage in summer.
  • Aspen’s fragmented and scattered distribution in Scotland is a factor in restricting flowering and pollination between male and female trees, as may be climatic conditions.
  • Aspen also suffers from being one of the most palatable of all trees for red deer – so any new shoots are eaten, unless growing out of the reach of deer, such as in rocky gullies or on cliff edges.              

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Mar 242017
 

On March 12th, in California, a Trump Golf course was vandalised by protesters. By contrast, in this very British protest, the important issues were discussed over a cup of tea!

Dr Jo House, University of Bristol with Ms Yashinee Aulum, TIGLS.

With thanks to Martin Ford.

On Saturday 18th March, climate scientists travelled to Trump International Golf Links, Scotland (TIGLS) to present a copy of The Ladybird Expert Guide to Climate Change, authored by HRH The Prince of Wales, and a statement on the importance of science and evidence in climate change policy making issued earlier this week by the Royal Meteorological Society.

The climate scientists wanted to highlight concerns that recent rhetoric and decisions from the Trump administration are contrary to the overwhelming evidence base on climate change and how it needs to be addressed.

Unexpectedly, they were offered the opportunity to discuss their concerns over a cup of tea!

The Head of Hospitality and Guest Services for TIGLS, Ms Yashinee Aulum, was pleased to receive the presentation. TIGLS is a business greatly affected by day-to-day weather, and one potentially at risk from future climate change.

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The visit to TIGLS followed a public science meeting at the University of Aberdeen entitled ‘Science and climate change in an alternative facts world’ which was held as part of British Science Week. The meeting was chaired by Prof Jo Smith (University of Aberdeen), and talks were given by:

Prof Piers Forster, University of Leeds,
Prof Terry Dawson, Kings College London,
Prof Pete Smith, University of Aberdeen,
Dr Jo House, University of Bristol,
Cllr Dr Martin Ford, Aberdeenshire Councillor.

Before the meeting, Prof Pete Smith, University of Aberdeen, who has served as Convening Lead Author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said:

“Climate change, and the way to deal with it, has been accepted by 196 countries at the Paris Climate Agreement, but Mr Trump has appointed a climate denier as the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, and has previously pledged to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The fact is, we need the US to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in order to meet the ambitious targets set out in the agreement.

“We all share the same atmosphere, so misguided actions in the US will not only affect Americans, it will affect everyone on the planet. We cannot allow decisions based upon ideology to replace those based on scientific evidence – and that is why we are holding this meeting today, during British Science Week – to urge Mr Trump’s administration to take the advice of its own climate scientists, and stick to US commitments under the Paris Agreement.

“The US will benefit from this. Failing to act when you don’t have the evidence is in some cases understandable – but failing to act when you are in full possession of the facts, which amounts to wilful ignorance, is inexcusable, and will cause great damage to the world we leave for our children and grand-children.”

Prof Piers Forster, Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate, University of Leeds said:

“The US is a democracy that I am not part of so they are entitled to pass what ever crazy laws they want. If they want to burn more coal it upsets me but it is ultimately not my call.  However, I worry when their policies threaten science.

“The US administration are really contradicting themselves, saying there is not enough evidence that carbon dioxide causes global warming, then promptly threatening to cut agencies that collect the evidence. Scientists around the world depend on NASA and NOAA satellites and on the efforts of many US colleagues. More than ever we should be basing decisions on evidence rather than ideologies, and I hope the US administration wakes up and realises this.”

Prof Jo Smith, University of Aberdeen added:

“The lives of people in low income countries are already challenged by extreme weather events; climate change will make this worse. We can’t gamble with their lives. Climate change will mean more droughts and floods, and more people will die. The science is clear, so climate policies must be based on this evidence.”

Prof Terry Dawson, Chair in Global Environmental Change, Department of Geography, King’s College London commented:

“This year, the United Nations predicts the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II with several East African Countries being severely affected by drought. The lack of rain has contributed to massive livestock deaths, food and water shortages, acute malnutrition and widespread famine.

“Future climate change is expected to increase the magnitude and frequency of extreme climate events, such as droughts or floods and it is the poorest people in society that are most vulnerable to its negative effects.

“Climate change is a serious risk to poverty reduction and we, as scientists, feel a moral imperative to urge our political leaders act now – inaction or delay is inexcusable.”

Dr Jo House, Cabot Institute, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol said:

“The Trump administration is choosing to ignore or deny the overwhelming scientific consensus on dangers of climate change to people’s health and well-being already, as well as in the future, and the urgency of putting in place long-term plans.

“We are affected in the UK by America’s emissions, but I have no voice there. Sadly similar denial or lack of action is taking place in our own country from a small number of newspapers, businesses and politicians.  UK governments since Margaret Thatcher have been at the forefront of climate action, as they, like the 196 governments who just signed the Paris Agreement, listened to the evidence and understood its importance.

“Climate change has recently slipped down the agenda of the Government. Many countries, states, and businesses have managed to slow or reduce their emissions while still increasing profitability. I am taking part in this meeting to stand up for evidence and for action, not just in America, but here at home.”

Aberdeenshire councillor Martin Ford said:

“Mr Trump is an environmental disaster. We knew that from his actions in Aberdeenshire over the last ten years, but now he can take decisions with global consequences. Mr Trump’s denial of climate change science will make progress with tackling the biggest threat facing the world immensely more difficult.”

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Mar 242017
 

With thanks to Richard Bunting, Director, Richard Bunting PR.

European Beaver (Castor fiber)
July 2010

Conservation charity Trees for Life is seeking support in raising £15,000 for a project aimed at bringing beavers back to the northwest Highlands.

The charity’s Bring Back the Beavers appeal will fund site assessments, work with local communities, and beaver habitat restoration work such as tree planting and natural regeneration.

This will enable Trees for Life to prepare for a formal application for a licence to re-establish beavers in the Highlands.

“Beavers were a key native species of the Caledonian Forest before being hunted to extinction some 400 years ago. We now have an unprecedented opportunity to bring them back,” said Alan Watson Featherstone, Founder of Trees for Life.

“We are asking the public to help us pave the way for beavers to come home to the Highlands – improving the region for other wildlife, and providing a tourist attraction to boost the local economy.”

Last November, the Scottish Government announced that European beavers were officially accepted as a native species in Scotland.

Trees for Life has been preparing for the return of beavers for more than 25 years. This has involved creating suitable habitat by planting aspens and willows along loch shores and riverbanks. In 2015, the charity commissioned an expert survey of some of the key sites where it works, which confirmed that these locations could support beavers.

Beavers are superb ecosystem engineers. They create and manage wetland habitats ­– benefitting insects, fish, bats and birds. Their small dams help regulate water flow. Their felling of trees provides dead wood that benefits many organisms, and stimulates regeneration by causing new shoots to grow from tree stumps.

Beavers cannot colonise the northwest Highlands on their own, as the Great Glen is a natural barrier to beavers from the existing populations in Argyll and Tayside. So the only way to be sure they will return to the region will be to give them a helping hand.

In Europe, 24 countries have reintroduced beavers, with significant benefits. The official Scottish beaver trial in Argyll also showed substantial positive results, both for the local ecology and from increased tourism.

The Scottish Government has recognised that some residents may be concerned about the possible impact of beavers on their interests, and that this requires careful management.

Any surplus funds raised by the Bring Back the Beavers appeal will be used by Trees for Life to fund other activities to help restore the wild forest habitat.

For more details and to support the appeal, visit www.treesforlife.org.uk.

Pictured: European beaver © Laurie Campbell (N.B. One-time free use with this story; please delete image afterwards and for any future use contact Laurie Campbell www.lauriecampbell.com)

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Mar 242017
 

With thanks to Lisa Marley Press.

An award-winning Aberdonian wildlife filmmaker, hailed by renowned naturalist Mark Avery as ‘gifted’, has launched a crowdfunding campaign to produce a new documentary following an experimental human wolf pack in the Scottish Highlands.

Lisa Marley (25), from Westhill, has created an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to make the film, Project Wolf, which will highlight Scotland’s studies into reintroducing species and restoring ecosystems, known as rewilding.

The film will follow the activities of charity Trees for Life’s Project Wolf – a human wolf pack – as it investigates the environmental impact of reintroducing wolves to the Caledonian Forest in Glen Moriston, near Loch Ness. By recreating the behaviours of natural predators, the charity hopes to discover how this would affect the movements and grazing of red deer, in an effort to restore plant life and allow new growth to thrive.

Wildlife and conservation enthusiasts can donate to the campaign at www.indiegogo.com/at/projectwolf until April 19 to help bring the film to the big screen, in exchange for a series of perks ranging from guide books and gift cards to production credits and invitations to film festivals.

Lisa says,

“I have always been interested in rewilding. The idea of reintroducing species to an ecosystem in order to restore natural balance is inherently fascinating. It allows us not only to examine the interactions of flora and fauna, but also to evaluate our own relationships with nature.

“Trees for Life’s work in the Highlands is at the forefront of rewilding study in Scotland, and its work with a human wolf pack allows for a unique perspective on the issues surrounding rewilding. By following the wolf pack’s movements, and interviewing the key figures involved in the project, I hope to allow a greater understanding of the importance of this work.

“Project Wolf is something of a passion project for me: it’s a wonderful story that I feel is important to tell, and I’d love to be able to do that in my own way. But I can’t do that alone, and I hope that the wildlife and conservation communities will share my enthusiasm for learning more about this incredible project.

“By donating via Indiegogo, those with an interest in rewilding can help spread the word and bring the issue to the attention of a much wider audience.”

Alan Watson Featherstone, founder of Trees for Life, believes that the film will help to raise the profile of rewilding and bring it to the public’s attention. He says,

“Project Wolf is an innovative project run by Trees for Life, using enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers to patrol the edge of the native Caledonian Forest, to disturb deer that are grazing on native tree seedlings, preventing their growth.

“It seeks to mimic the natural disturbance effect of missing predators, such as the wolf, and has the potential to be replicated in many parts of Scotland (and elsewhere), greatly assisting the process of forest restoration.

“This film will play a crucial role in communicating the value, importance and effectiveness of the project, so please support it with a donation – you will be directly helping the recovery of the Caledonian Forest.”

Lisa’s last film, Red Sky on the Black Isle, also continues to make waves both in the film and wildlife communities.

Translated into multiple languages and screened around the world, it picked up the Little Audience Prize at the Raptor Filmz Short Scottish Film Festival last year.

This weekend it will be screened at the inaugural Wild Film Festival Scotland in Dumfries, and will be shown at the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York in October.

The Project Wolf campaign runs on Indiegogo until April 19. For more information, and to donate, visit www.indiegogo.com/at/projectwolf

To follow Lisa’s progress, follow Project Wolf on Facebook at www.facebook.com/projectwolffilm or follow Lisa on Twitter @procuriosity

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