Skip to content

The Fourth Statistical Account of East Lothian

Archie Mathieson - interview transcript

Archie Mathieson, retired County Ranger - interview transcript


Mr Mathieson came to East Lothian from Ayrshire in 1970, and worked as County Ranger from then until 1990. For many years he has contributed a weekly article on wildlife to the East Lothian Courier.

In this wide ranging discussion Mr Mathieson deals with wildlife in East Lothian in general, and Longniddry in particular, covering among much else, the arrival of the collared dove, magpie, buzzard, and grey squirrel, the puzzling demise of the brown hare, and the apparent recovery of the otter. He also reflects on the spread of the wood pigeon, the carrion crow, and the fox into built up areas they would formerly have avoided. East Lothian Council is praised for its efforts in the field of conservation, and the interview ends on an optimistic note.


Archie Mathieson, retired County Ranger.

Interviewed by D M Robertson 11th June 2001.

DR Now, You're Archie Mathieson. You write a weekly column on nature for the East Lothian Courier. You're a retired man now, but can you tell me what your job was when you were working?

AM Well, it all happened under what they called the "Countryside Scotland Act", which gave local authorities a 75% grant to employ rangers to look after the land that they had under their care beaches, parks, all those sort of things. I got the job, and I started in 1970. And what we done was the real task was to look after the areas, the management of the areas, doing maintenance work, speaking to the public, which I always regarded as the most important thing you had to do. Then eventually that led to taking guided walks; take parties round, school parties, groups of adults, then started giving slide shows. I don't think there'll be a hall in East Lothian that I havenae been in and given a slide show in the twenty years I worked as a ranger. So basically you just had to do anything that needed done in the area you know, you were looking after the area. That' s the simplest way to put it.

DR So you would be very familiar with the wildlife flora and fauna, and all this kind of thing?

AM That's correct Davie. Well, what happened is, I've had an interest in wildlife as far back as I can remember, ever since I was a wee boy. And of course in these days you didnae have books or binoculars or anything like that, but that didnae stop ye fae bein observant. I used to notice all sorts of things. It was only many many years later that I was able to purchase books and that, that I discovered what a lot of these things actually were. So I didnae actually learn about it out the book, but I learned about what it was out of the book. Which I think is quite an important thing.

DR So you were a County Ranger in East Lothian from when did you say?

AM 1970 to 1990.

DR To 1990. Well, I'm going to ask you about some of the wildlife round about Longniddry. One of the things that everybody says has happened is that there are some species which are not as common as they used to be. Could you maybe tell us something about that?

AM That's perfectly true Davie, and there are many … there are a number of things that are no longer here; and there are a number of things that are here now. I'd just like to go to a wee list I've got here about what has happened to some of the farmland birds. Would that be all right? This was … you know how there are people do bird counts all the time? R.S.P.B. and the British Trust for Ornithology and so on, and they collate all this information. And they reckon that between 1972 and 1996 there's been a decline in many of the farmland birds. I'll just give you some. They reckon that the blackbird's down 31 %, dunnock down 40%, partridge down 78%, house sparrow 64%, peewit 46%, mistle thrush 48%, and probably one of the most worrying ones of the whole lot is the skylark 75% down in population in that time! Song thrush is down 66%. As a matter of interest we were sitting here, I've only heard one song thrush this year. When I came here in nineteen seventy odd, you'd expect to have heard three or four singing.

DR I've yin up in ma gairden. It's the first that I've seen for years.

AM That's what's happened. Another one's the spotted flycatcher; it's down 78%. I mean, these are all worrying things.

DR How far would these apply to Longniddry? Are there the same decreases in Longniddry?

AM No, not some of them, but not all of them. A lot of people have said to me there are no as many house sparrows here as what there used to be. I don't know, because I mean I wasnae here (inaudible). All I can say is modern houses don't accommodate a house sparrow, do they? There's no place for them to nest and that may well be one of the reasons for that. Certainly, we've got a good population of blackbirds, as good a population of blackbirds as I think you'd find anywhere in the country. I've got a nest out there in my hedge. Just hatched. Well I looked, checked … I saw her out on the grass and then I looked in yesterday. Four of her five eggs already hatched. She was off havin a feed … Another worrying one now, the partridge. When I came here in 1970, it wasnae unusual to see coveys of two adults and about eighteen young, something like that. And come the breeding time you could hear them everywhere, you know, they were fighting for territory and selecting mates and so on, but you'll no see anything like that now. Round about here you'll not see that number of partridges. Peewits have also declined. Now, I don't know how many used to nest in this area, probably no that many because grain fields are no the best fields for peewits nesting.

DR Where we used to see partridges and peewits was the Quarry Field, you know, up the back of Archie Middlemass's.

AM Aye, aye.

DR Of course the filled in the quarries … it was a grass field … they filled in the quarries, put topsoil over it, and now it's just barley or whatever.

AM Aye. So … mistle thrushes are down in number I would say. There's no as many mistle thrushes as what I saw when I came here in 1970. In fact, I've been in Longniddry ten years and I would say there's actually been a decline in them in that time. These are just some of the birds. Another one … what has happened in a lot of cases with this of course, as you've probably noticed, we've got quite a few magpies about now. Now, I came to East Lothian in 1970; I mean, there were magpies in Edinburgh and Midlothian and so on. It was 1976 before I saw one actually in East Lothian. And I've seen a report in the bird book I've got there that by 1918 they were more or less extinct in East Lothian. I always attribute that to the number of gamekeepers we probably had, keeping their numbers down. But now of course there are very few gamekeepers, the numbers are on the increase. As you'll know, they're nesting in the village now.

DR Certainly when I was a laddie there wasnae such a thing as a magpie.

AM And that is bad news for all your wee birds.

DR Are they ready as bad as they're supposed to be?

AM Yes, yes! Probably even worse! Because, I mean, they'd take the eggs or they'll take the young out of the nest, or they'll take the young just soon after they're out of the nest And I can remember, I've watched them where I lived in Ayrshire, like plenty magpies I used to watch them hunting the hedges, two of them. And I bet there wouldnae be a nest would escape (inaudible).

DR Are they protected?

AM No not particularly so, no. The other one was … The other bird, probably the most interesting one of all, is the collared dove. You didnae see a collared dove here when you were a wee boy.

DR No, no.

AM No, neither would I. Because they first nested in Norfolk in 1935. By 1957 they had spread up north as far as Moray. But the spread began before that. They came originally from the Balkans. For some reason there's never been any explanation given for it they spread northwest across Europe from 1900. And look now there's no shortage of them. You hear the "Coo coo, coo coo."

DR Oh aye, they're everywhere. They waken you in the morning.

AM Aye, so there are plenty of them. Another one I remember as a boy was the corncrake. Now, I've been in East Lothian now thirty years, and I've heard one corncrake, and that was down at Hailes Castle a few years ago

DR I've never heard such a thing about Longniddry.

AM Well, there you are you see. Apparently they've been rare in the Lothians since the 1930s … mid 1930s … and what they attribute that to is the cutting of silage. Corncrakes always nest in … I mean, it's a corncrake, but they never nest in a cornfield, they always nest in the hayfields. Of course, in days gone by the hay was cut late and dried, you know, for winter feed, whereas now a lot of its cut as silage.

DR In the breeding season.

AM Right in the breeding season. There are still quite a few of them, apparently, in the Western Isles. And I think it was last year or the year before there were five hundred and sixty odd pairs in Britain, which is no many birds for the whole …

DR No for the whole country.

AM No, no. No. Another one that we've got here now … I used to just see an odd one, is the peregrine. Now it's the symbol of East Lothian District Council … or the East Lothian Council; they don't have the "District" any more. They're now nesting in East Lothian. And another one similar to that, the buzzard. The buzzard's just about everywhere you go now in the Lothians.

DR It would have been a real event to see a buzzard near Longniddry when I was a laddie.

AM Well, I can remember where I lived in Ayrshire there was no buzzards. They arrived there after myxomatosis; because we were late myxomatosis was late in reaching us, and the net result was we still had a lot of rabbits, and the buzzards appeared there. But you'd find they're nesting all round here.

DR What's the explanation for that then? Is that the same as the magpies, because there's no as many gamekeepers, or .....

AM It may well be. That could be the answer, Davie, but birds come and birds go, you know … there's lots of reasons. Some of them come and go for natural reasons. Other ones come and go because of the effects we have on them. And it's no always easy to tell. But certainly buzzards are now regularly seen round about Longniddry. In fact last year one of my friends got six in the air at the one time below Blawearie, down below Blawearie. Aye. Just the other day I had three circling here, over the Estate.

DR Aye, I've seen them circling over the village.

AM Aye, you'll see them when they go up on the thermal. Aye. Another one is the sparrow hawk. When I came here, sparrow hawks, they were few and far between. Ye didnae see them very often. And now, the reason for the decline … I was involved in the investigation into the use of Dieldrin.

DR What was that again?

AM It was a seed dressing … wheat bulb fly … wheat bulb fly they used to dress the wheat with this Dieldrin. It stopped it being attacked by the wheat bulb fly. And of course the wee birds ate the wheat, and they didnae eat enough to kill them; but the sparrow hawk was eating nothing but wee birds, and it was concentrated into them. And the net result was, it either killed them or made them infertile. That Dieldrin dressing was stopped. They stopped using it. And, well, there are sparrow hawks come regularly through my garden here. You maybe get them in your garden as well.

DR I've never seen one in my garden

(Brief confused exchange.)

AM … here the birds will tell me that they're there without even seeing them with the noise they make. Barn owls. There are a few barn owls still round about here.

DR Aye, you hear them.

AM Aye. There's no many o them. And the tawny owl's over in the wood as well, and … I've got a note here, Davie, its a few years ago now, one of the boys I knew, he worked on the railway a surfaceman you called them. And each day he walked from Prestonpans to Drem and back, checking the track and everything we could have done with somebody doing that recently and one year he picked up thirteen owls from the railway line. Now you think of the grain that's grown round about here. That's no really suitable for owls to hunt over. They'll no see anything in it. A lot of them now hunt on the roadside verges and on the railway track. Well, I pick them up regularly killed on the roads.

DR And when I think about it, the sides of the railway are rotten with rabbits. They'll be getting the young rabbits.

AM Aye. Rabbits, aye. That's just some of the things that have happened. One of the most important things I think on the wildlife scene happened to the rabbit, when myxomatosis was introduced in the 1950s. And, I'll tell you an interesting story about that. It was tried out on an island first, off the coast of Wales just in case anything disastrous happened. They introduced it to the rabbits there and nothing happened. The Skokholm rabbits don't have fleas on them. It's the flea that spreads it; bites it and spreads the virus from one rabbit to another. If you think of the number … the amount of wildlife feeding on rabbits foxes, stoats, weasels, birds (inaudible) and when the rabbit went of course that was one of the main sources of food gone. And the result of that, the foxes have started going round the towns. I mean, I've seen them going round the village here, walking up the street, up the road here in front of the house.

DR Aye? In Wemyss Road?

AM In Wemyss Road. Aye. In fact I mean, if you travel on the City Bypass you'll often see a fox killed.

DR Oh aye.

AM Aye, regularly. And that's another point, Davie. The more things you find killed on the road, I always regard that means there's a high population of them. Do you ever go up the hill road up by the Whiteadder? There's a massive population of rabbits. How many rabbits do you see killed on the road? Twenty or thirty in a stretch.

DR Oh aye. A kind of mosaic of squashed rabbits …

AM … rabbits all the way along. And a lot of these birds feed on them as well. The buzzard will take them. The owls will take them, and so on. So that's one of them, the fox. Another one we should worry about is the hare. Now, I know a local chap here in Longniddry, he used to shoot, and they used to hold a hare shoot. Once the pheasant shoot was by, they'd have a hare shoot, and they would come from Cantyha' as he called it, right along through towards Ballencrieff, you know, these fields; and it wasnae unusual for them to shoot two hundred hares. Now, I would hazard a guess that you'd be lucky to see two hundred hares in East Lothian nowadays.

DR You'd be lucky to shoot two, coming from Cantyha' to Ballencrieff.

AM Aye. Consider, how many of them you used to find killed on the road? How many do you find now? Very few. You very seldom see a hare killed on the road now, because they're no there to be killed. Well, that's what I attribute it to anyway. What the cause of the decline is, I've got no idea. Badgers seem to have improved a wee bit in numbers.

DR I've never seen badgers around Longniddry. I'm told they're there, but I've never seen one.

AM Oh, they're there all right. I'm no saying where they are, but they're there you know. I've seen the setts in one or two places, and tracks and so on. And there are a few round about here. Another one we could have done without is the grey squirrel.

DR Well, there wasnae such a thing here in the 1950s when I was a laddie.

AM Well, I wasnae here then. When I came in 1970 they still werenae here. I didnae see a grey squirrel in East Lothian till 1976. They spread outwards from Edinburgh. And now there are no many places you'll no find them.

DR They're no just in the Wood, they're in the village as well. I've seen them in the garden.

AM Oh aye. Aye. I've had them through my garden here. Now, a lot of folk think that the grey squirrel was responsible for the decline of the red squirrel, but that's no strictly true. Apparently, according to the information I can get, the red squirrels suffered a virus attack of some kind or other that killed them off back a number of years ago, and that declined the population. And the other thing is that grey squirrels tend to be in broad-leaved trees, whereas red squirrels tend to prefer coniferous woods, because their main food is the seeds of pine …

DR Which is why they're still common up about Abernethy.

AM They're up there, you see, the red squirrels.

DR And have we still got red squirrels here?

AM We still have, aye. In one or two places in East Lothian.

DR In Longniddry?

AM Well, I've had them in Gosford. But as I say, it's difficult to know what the population is like. I'll tell you an interesting thing about that, is that if you go down to Tyninghame, you see very, very dark red squirrels, almost black.

DR The wuid's hotchin wi them!

AM Well, I wondered about this, you see, and I spoke to the factor of the estate, and he said, I'll find out for you." Apparently at the time of the virus attack, the earl of that time brought in squirrels from Germany; I believe it was from the Black Forest. Now, that is the European race dark. And I'll tell you what it was set me off to investigate this. I was watching a television nature programme one day, about wildlife. And here, it was showing you a red squirrel from Spain, and it was quite black. And that clicked with me with the Tynninghame ones. And that's how I thought I better find out and that's why. Ours arenae dark like that. So this is the European race. It's still the red squirrel, but it's the European race that for some reason is darker than ours.

Otters. Well, I know of two otters have been killed in what you would say the Longniddry area.

DR Really?

AM On the road, aye. And I know of three, and they've all been young males. Because what happens is the young male will get chased out the territory and he'll move away to find a territory of his own. And of course they've fallen prey to traffic on the roads. There was one at Macmerry. So … one here just at the top of the Coal Road. Somewhere up there. Aye. And there was another one somewhere else I'm no quite sure where it was.

Another thing we could have done without, and we've had them in this area, the mink. Now, I listen to all these animal fights people, releasing hundreds of mink into the countryside. I wonder if they realise just exactly what they're doing. Now, whether you approve of mink being kept in cages or no is another matter, but the point is did these mink, they are real they're number one hunters. And … they reckon that they're responsible for the disappearance more or less of the water hen.

DR Because they were very common here. You hardly see such a thing now.

AM That's right.

DR Never mind hardly. Ye dinnae see such a thing!

AM They were in every wee burn. A tiny wee pond that you could have nearly jumped across sometimes held a water hen's nest. Ditches even, they used to nest in! They attribute their decline to the arrival of the mink.

DR Have we got mink round about Longniddry?

AM I've seen them here, aye. Aye. But maybe no as many as you get in some other places. They're here nevertheless. That was one of the things. The other one … probably … a water vole. We've got water voles in the burns down here. You know, the three burns that go into the sea down here? We've got water voles there. And they seem to be, well, holding their own a wee bit.

DR Certainly, I can mind these in the Fifties and Sixties.

AM That's right. Where I lived when I was a boy we had the river, we used to go fishing and camping beside it. All night you heard, "plop" and you seen the V as they swam across the river, you see. And they were everywhere! Apparently in some areas they're completely extinct now down in England.

DR So I believe.

AM Aye. Completely gone. In fact my son, he's involved in a committee that's going into what they can do to reintroduce them there.

DR Why should they survive in the burn at Longniddry, and yet they're extinct …

AM There you are, you see. What you're talking about is about fifty yards of burn.

DR Oh aye. Its no an extensive bit

AM There's none of them above the Coast Road. They're all below it. Because its thick vegetation, and above it's the Golf Course. You see, it's too open for them. But they've survived there, and obviously, whether the mink hasnae been down there not I don't know, but they seem to have survived. And that's what worries me. A while back there was pollution of that burn.

DR Aye, there was a spill of some kind of chemical.

AM Diesel. Diesel oil. That bothers me when you get things like that happening. These are just some of the major things that have happened. Another thing that … look at the butterflies. Now, this is about the third poor year poor in inverted commas for wildlife. Weather of course is mainly responsible. Now, our commonest coloured butterfly here is the small tortoiseshell. I've seen ten or twelve in my garden here. I've never seen more than one for the past two or three years.

DR You'd think that really warm spell this year we had in May would have brought out a lot of butterflies.

AM But the problem is, they werenae there to come out, you see. Aye, because they've been reduced in the past years. Look at last summer very poor. The summer before I think was the same. And what happens is they don't have good breeding success. The numbers decline. There are fewer to go into hibernation. Some of them will probably no survive hibernation. And then there's fewer to come out. So you're going down the way all the time. You see? So there's nothing we can do about that. It's the weather.

Another interesting one we've got here now, the six spot burnet moth. Now, this is a … well, it looks black but its fore wings are actually a kind of bluey greencolour, and it's got three pairs of red scarlet spots on each wing. And its hind wings are scarlet. Scarlet with a black border on them. Now, that's new in my time. And they've spread up the coast. Now, I don't know how many of them go inland I've found them at the Whiteadder Reservoir, so they must be breeding other places. But most of them tend to breed on the coast.

Bumblebees we used to have in Britain nineteen different species of bumble bees. Three of them are now extinct, and others are in danger of becoming so. Now, we've still got quite a few bumblebees about here.

DR I have a nest under my hut.

AM Aye. Aye. Well, I've got a lot of kind of stuff in my garden that they like. See a lot of these herb flowers? Purple and blue flowers that you get …

DR Do bumblebees like them?

AM Aye. Oh aye. That's the colour they like. I've watched, early in the spring when the big queens come out of hibernation … I've seen my wife with the washing out and watched a bumblebee flying down the line of washing and landing on every blue item. Blue is a colour that they see.

DR Bumblebees obviously arenae colour blind then.

AM No, no, no. They see blue … but I don't know if they see it blue or no, though, this is the thing.

DR What they see might be different from what we see.

AM Oh aye, but blue is the colour that attracts them. Same as, have you ever thought about what colour are most of your early spring flowers? White? Yellow? They're pollinated by flies. Flies are out before the bees.

DR And the flies prefer the …

AM Well, they're out early, and there's nothing for them to use but these flowers, you know. I mean, they're also pollinated by bees as well once they come out. But early in the year there are no so many bees about.

Another interesting one, Davie. You're a gardener so you'll know. The ladybird; how many have you seen this year?

DR I've seen one this year.

AM Well, earlier on … this is another thing that's been kind of scarce for, I think this will be its third year again. Yet in some areas there seem to be quite a lot of them. It varies.

DR Its no that many years since they were talking about plagues of ladybirds. They were worried in case they were going to bite them or something!

AM I can remember … remember in nineteen … remember the drought years from seventy to seventy six? You'll maybe no remember that, but really warm summer weather! I thought it never rained here in fact when I came. I found it did later on! In '76 there was an invasion of ladybirds, and I walked round the path at Yellowcraig and there were hundreds killed on the path with folk walking on them.

DR There were so many of them.

AM Crushed on the path. Of course what they're going for there is the greenfly on the underside of the sycamore leaves. They feed on greenfly. That's their main source of food.

Another interesting one, Davie. I was going to tell you as well about that though Davie. Apparently there's a parasitic wasp; now, I don't know how big its been here, orwhether its just appeared or what …

DR Attacking the ladybirds?

AM Laying its eggs on the ladybirds. Of course when its larvae hatch they eat the ladybirds. And that may well contribute to the decline. And of course the weather will probably no have helped either. I had fifteen in my garden earlier on this year, when they came out of hibernation. And since then I've only seen four, to a maximum. But usually just one that I see.

DR Well, I've only seen one. I'll tell you what I've seen an awfy lot of, this last few weeks, is snails. There's snails everywhere!

AM It's wet weather isn't it!

DR That's the explanation, is it?

AM Aye, well, it might help. Aye, there's plenty snails. Big garden snails?

DR Aye.

AM Aye, and slugs as well.

Another one it doesnae affect us so much here, Davie, is … I know quite a few folk that used to fish in the hill burns, oh, long before my time, and they used to catch trout no big trout of course eight or nine inches would be a big trout, or something like that. And I was speaking to one of the chaps there recently and he'd (inaudible) recently he hardly saw a trout, for whatever reason I don't know. And I'll tell you one thing that could contribute to that.

Do you know the goosander at all? A fishing duck.

DR Aye, is that the one with the saw edge …

AM The saw bill. There's two we see here, the goosander and the red-breasted merganser. The goosander's fishing in a' thae wee hill burns, and, all right, we cannae compete with … trout, but wee trout grow big. If you let them grow big. Whether that has contributed to it, I don't know. And another thing we've got in the reservoir is the cormorant. Now, I remember a cormorant that was shot in Ayrshire, and it had thirteen trout in it­

DR I didnae realise that cormorants would live away from the sea. I thought they were exclusively sea birds.

AM Well, I've seen them … no they don't … they fish, just, and then come back. It's so much worth their while, you see. I was out at Harperrig I don't know if you know it, out at Balerno and I saw a cormorant fishing there. I've seen them several times, and the nearest point to the sea is fifteen miles away (inaudible) It's obviously worth its while.

DR It's a long way to go to get your dinner!

AM The interesting thing about this is, I've watched them, and I've watched them at the Whiteadder. They circle to gain altitude, like a big bomber. It's taken them twenty to twenty five minutes to gain altitude, they're so heavily laden with trout.

DR You can understand why they're getting scarcer then.

AM They're no very popular with the fishermen either, I can assure you of that!

DR Aye. All this business of species declining or disappearing, and other species coming in and so on now, you keep hearing about "global warming". Is that a factor in your opinion?

AM Well, if the temperature I mean, a lot of folk don't appreciate it only takes a rise of one degree in the temperature to make a difference. You see, what'll happen if we do suffer seriously from global warming, and I've no doubt there's something in it, because if you study the weather and all these things like that you appreciate that there's something on the go. Now, I don't know whether it's always been like that like that ten thousand years ago. You see, this is the thing we don't know, but they can tell you a lot from the remains that the scientists investigate. There is global warming, and it does take effect like that; we'll probably lose some things from here. They'll go south, because this'll be … or they'll go north. We'll get things coming up; we'll get things going north from here because it's too warm.

DR They'll all be refugees from the weather, but refugees in different ways.

AM Different ways, aye.

DR What about farming practices? How far's that a cause of declines and …

AM Well, they reckon … you see, one of the major problems they say nowadays is that we grow a lot of grain round here. Now, I'm no blaming farmers, I'm no blaming anybody, but as soon as the grain harvest is cut, the bales are made up and the fields are ploughed. (Mrs Mathieson comes in and leaves.) the field's ploughed, Davie, which doesnae leave a stubble … (Mrs M again.) … and there's nae stubble, which used to be a great thing for winter food for all the wee birds. And that's why I thought this "set aside" could well be a thing that would help.

DR But they spray it.

AM Unfortunately that's what they do, you see. Well, I don't know why that happens but its no … I mean, I've seen set aside where … I know one field, I'm no saying where it was, but this one field a mass of flowers and seeds and everything, and it was full of insects and butterflies.

DR A week later it'd a' be broon!

AM Of course, it doesnae Well, it's no a very good idea.

DR Presumably anything that would be living in there when they sprayed it would be killed by the spray.

AM Well, aye. Or it would be affected in some way or another. I don't know the scientific things that happen, and all these things, but I know that it cannae be good for some things. Set aside seemed to me to be a great idea, you know, for wildlife. I saw one field recently, it wasnae in East Lothian, there must have been about ten million dandelion clocks in it. There's a lot of feeding there for birds, isn't there?

DR I was going to ask you about the different habitats in the Longniddry area, what you think are the most interesting things in each of these habitats. I mean, you cannaemention every thing, bit maybe just the main things that strike you in maybe first of all, in the woods round about Longniddry.

AM Well, we've got a very good … I mean, when I was a boy I was mainly interested in birds. Now I'm interested in everything, which means you never learn an awful lot about anything. But, by here, it's an interesting life for me though! I think probably some of your … what we regard as common woodland birds, are still common in this area, birds that have declined in other areas.

DR Aye, you read about rooks being in decline in other places.

AM There you are you see. There you are. I don't know what the population … you'll notice our local rookery has now spread to the wee trees …

DR It's in the Garden City.

AM Aye. Aye. It's moved into there you see. They're expanding. That must be overspill! No, I think a lot of our wee woodland birds are no too bad off here, Davie, and as I said earlier, a massive population of blackbirds! It's unfortunate about the song thrush though. I'm sorry to see them going.

DR Why would they decline when blackbirds survive? Because you would think they were much the same kind of bird.

AM Well, they both belong to the thrush family. But the thing is, they both get different foods. Apparently … I think … a blackbird will eat more berries, I believe, than a song thrush will.

DR The thrushes were great boys for the snails.

AM The snails. I know. Oh aye. I remember one down at Yellowcraig, one of these hard winters we had, oh, eighty..Eighty-eight? The ground was frozen solid. Next to the beach. That shows you how hard it was, with the sand dunes and everything. The thrushes had a great time smashing the snails. Well, there was one thrush survived there because of all the snails it was finding, searching about in the roots of the marram grass. Black lipped hedge snail, we call that. And one day there was a duster of song thrush feathers. A sparrow hawk had caught it. So that was it. It didnae survive at all.

But our wee woodland birds I think are no too bad off here. You get the fluctuations that are the responsibility of the weather. I mean, there was one year a few years ago there were hardly any blue tits or great tits well, there werenae many compared to what there are now, and the reason for that was the caterpillars hadnae (inaudible)

DR Of course everything's interdependent right enough.

AM That's right. You see that's what they feed their wee … You know, these wee green caterpillars that eat all the holes in the leaves on the trees and everything? Well, that was a bad year for the caterpillars, and they reckon that was the reason for the decline in the blue tits and great tits. Some people had nest boxes, and the young great tits and blue tits in them died.

DR Starvation.

AM Starvation, you see. The adult, oh, it's faithful to the young, but it's no gonnae die itself.

DR They're no that faithful.

AM No, no. Survival is its main aim as well. You know, and if there's only a shortage of food (inaudible) and it's shared, the young will just have to get anything that's left. But quite a few of them died that year in nest boxes I had a few reports.

DR What about the beach, and the foreshore? What's the most interesting things in your opinion about that?

AM Well, there's a lot … When I came here in 1970, and we used to regularly get oil pollution.

DR Aye, that's right.

AM Do you remember it? Now, it wasnae the stuff you see from the Torrey Canyon or anything like that. It was what a chap very cleverly called "creamy pollution", just wee drops, wee spots, covering the whole beach. And at that time there used to be all lines of tankers lined up out there. And well, I cannae say whether they were emptying their tanks, but where else would it come from? And we used to lose a lot of birds with that, the oil pollution. But maybe we should touch wood when we say that I think they've tidied that one, and you no longer see all these small pollutions you used to get.

DR What about this business of sewage pollution? Last year or the year before there was supposed to be a hundred percent more than the recommended E.U. limit. Would that affect wildlife?

AM Well, I'll tell you an interesting story, Davie. There used to be a bird very very common here called a scaup, it's one of the sea ducks. And they reckon off Seafield in Edinburgh, there were anything up to at least thirty thousand scaup wintered there.

DR Eating the sewage?

AM They were eating grain that was coming from the distilleries. When the new plant was put in at Seafield the scaup all vanished. The population in Holland has increased, so they've obviously gone there.

DR It's the eider duck you see a lot of here.

AM They seem to be holding their own. Now, just as a matter of interest I'll look up a wee note about the eider duck here. The eider … this is an interesting wee bit. This is a book that's called "The Birds of the Lothians". It gives you records away back. It says about the eider, "The presence of considerable numbers of eider in the east has been known since about 1800. However it was only in 1930 that a flock of up to fifty was first noted at Musselburgh and Granton." And it says, "Large numbers are present throughout the year." It's difficult to guess at what the population is, but they reckon that the coast between Gosford and Dunbar, there's possibly up to a thousand pairs nesting in that section. And on the isles, you know, the isles off North Berwick. But they come in more depending on where the feeding is. They have a hard time with the gulls and that. They've really got to look after their young.

DR Do the gulls take the young?

AM The gulls take the young ducks, aye. But another interesting thing about our coast here … the winter population we've got … all these interesting divers and grebes and everything long tailed ducks that come from Iceland and that, and places like that. The other one … waders, a lot of waders. You'll no see many just now off course, because they're all away. Consider the things like the turnstone, they feed on the rocky coast. And the knott, the bird that does everything in masses, flies, roosts, feeds, everything. You know, you've seen them.

DR I cannae tell all these wee waders apart. They're just wee waders to me.

AM I know, but a lot of them are from Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, and some of them away round the coast of Siberia, you know, off of Siberia and places like that. Some of them when they come of course are only passing through, but others come to winter here. And they reckon that thirty percent of the wintering population of redshank on the Lothian coast come from Iceland. You get redshanks' nests inland here. Most of them are reported to go south. The ones from Iceland come here. Generally speaking, there's a general southward movement. It's a particularly good bit for birds. It's also good … there's a particularly good collection of shells here. One of the interesting ones, Davie; you go down there, between the Seton Dean burn and the holiday camp. Have you seen the oyster shells?

DR Aye, that's what I thought you were going to say. Because although there are supposed to be nae oysters left in the Forth, there's piles of oyster shells.

AM Ah but how old are they?

DR They look very old, but I have seen …

AM Ones that look quite fresh?

DR No many. Just an odd one.

AM Odd ones. I've picked up an odd one. But whether they're still there in numbers, I don't know. But some people reckon there are still oyster beds.

DR It would be interesting to know if there are still native oysters.

AM Aye. You see, the problem with a lot of these things is, you know how a lot of people eat these shellfish? Mussels, and things like that.

DR I wouldnae eat anything off that beach. When you see them collecting the wulks …

AM No, I wouldnae either. You know, I think it's now ... I believe a mussel, you know, an ordinary mussel, can put through about ten gallons of water in a feeding session in the time that the tide's in. Now, that's a lot of water. And that's where all the pollution comes in. It collects in the shell and it cannae get rid of it.

DR You see the Travellers down there filling up bags of wulks, and selling them I don't know where they sell them on to, but I wouldnae eat anything off that beach.

AM The problem is, what they done, there was that many of them collecting one year we were a wee bit concerned about it. And what happened was they were sending them to France. The French had cleaned up their coast and had hardly any periwinkles what we call wulks, but periwinkles to give it its proper name.

DR The other thing in that line you keep hearing about is the lugworm.

AM Well, that is a threat too, you see, because most wee birds, a good lot of the birds you see down there, that' s what they're feeding on, the lugworm. And the real problem is, there's nothing wrong with the local boys digging bait for themselves, but these boys are doing it on a commercial basis. And they've been banned out of the North of England.

DR It's the Newcastle area they're …

AM Aye, and they come up here then. They're selling them. There's a difference digging some lugworms to go fishing yourself ...

DR Was there no some guy appeared with a rotovator or something?

AM Yup. He'd one of these kind of … some kind of machine for scooping up I would say that was commercial, would you no? Well, it looks like it to me anyway. Or he's gonnae be daein an awfy lot of fishing!

DR You were talking about the birds on the shore there. The one that always means "Longniddry" to me is the sound of the geese going over in the winter time. Are they all the same kind of geese or …

AM No. We've actually got greylag geese nesting in our area here. Greylags.

DR Nesting?

AM Nesting.

DR So they're here all the year round?

AM Aye, they are. These are greylag geese, overspill from the Edinburgh … you know when you go up to Duddingston. You cannae get along the road sometimes for geese crossing the road. I think there's an overspill from there, because these ones are also semi tame. The other one is … but that's going to confuse things a wee bit for some people. You know, it's quite interesting, you see. I've got a letter through there, I just phoned the chap at the weekend. Two days running he'd seen two lots of geese in North Berwick. He said, "I thought the geese wouldnae be here till September." I said, 'Well," I said, "some of the geese'll no be here till September, but we've now got a population of …"


DR You were talking about greylag geese.

AM Aye, they're feral. They're acually what you'd call semi tame. Feral means … ken?

DR Like the goats, eh?

AM That's right. You go up at Duddingston, they're eating the bread out of folk's hands. But also at this time of year you've got Canada geese passing through. Most of them apparently come from the Yorkshire area, and they're heading for the Beauly Firth to moult. Because when a lot of these waterfowl are moulting they lose the power of flight, so they've got to find a safe place for feeding and roosting, at that time of year. Same as all our eiders. I mean, there was a count of about seven thousand eiders along the coast down towards Yellowcraig.

DR Seven thousand?

AM Between Gosford and Yellowcraig. Aye, you get a lot of them round about Eyebroughy, you know, the wee island to the west of Fidra. Because they cannae fly. Same as,you'll no see a black and white male eider in a wee while because they've all moulted into what they call the "eclipse plumage".

DR What colour are they?

AM Very like the females. Except that they've got a white … well, you can identify them if you know what to look for. They've still got a lot of white on the wing. You see, they lose the power of flight, so they've got to find a safe place. When I was a wee boy living in Ayrshire I used to wonder where all the male eiders went. I thought they must be out to sea or something.

DR And they were there all the time.

AM There all the time.

DR What about the … We've kind of touched on this previously, bit what about the fields about Longniddry and the verges and hedgerows and so on? What is there of interest there?

AM Well, we've got all the usual kind of … a lot of the usual hedgerow flowers that you get you know, along the verges. And I see that the Council is planning to do less cutting or something, to save money.

DR I'd noticed that.

AM Aye. Well, I don't mind cutting. What you've got to watch here, Davie, is if you don't cut at all, you get a dense vegetation.

DR And certain things will just take over.

AM It kills out all your wee flowers then. In actual fact, I regard roadside verges as a nature reserve. And as such, you've got to manage it. You know, some places you would cut for wee flowers, and some places you wouldnae cut till the plants had seeded, and then you would cut it.

DR So the Council should be thinking carefully about when to cut and when no to cut.

AM Well, they may well be doing that, I don't know, because I mean I'm no in touch with anything that's happening now. But I regard … have you ever thought how much land is on the motorway verges?

DR Well, right enough.

AM There must be quite a few acres. I'll tell you the interesting thing. Nobody goes there. There's no disturbance. That's why foxes breed there. (inaudible)

DR I mean, you see kestrels hovering all the time.

AM They're there all the time. Another thing is, they reckon the vibration of the traffic sometimes brings worms up.

DR That makes sense.

AM That's one theory that's been put forward. Have you ever put your spade into the ground or your fork into the ground and seen the worms coming up?

DR Oh aye. That's what happens all the time. That's why the blackbirds come along at your back when you're digging.

AM That's right, aye. When you put your fork in the ground and give it a push back and forward you sometimes get the worms shooting out. No, the roadside verges are a very important part of our place the now. And then we've got the Railway Walk. That's a very good place for small birds. I remember somebody said to me, "Och, it's nothing but hawthorn bushes." And I said, "Well, no 'nothing but hawthorn bushes', but a lot of hawthorn bushes." But that's good, because that provides food and shelter in winter. The birds eat the hawthorn berries. It provides shelter for them at this time of year for nesting. So you cannae really … What I would like … I used to look after it of course, when I was working. And I visualised different sections with different kinds of habitat on them. You know, vary the habitat and then you would provide an area for all sorts of different things.

DR I see they've been busy there lately cutting down a lot of the bushes.

AM Aye, you see, because if you don't the whole area will just close up. We were clearing a bit one time and this lady complained like mad to me. She said, "You should know better than cutting all this vegetation." I had great difficulty in explaining to her that if we didnae do that, she wouldnae be there! Nature very quickly takes over, Davie. I think you'll have noticed that. If you're a gardener you'll have noticed that!

DR Try no weedin your garden and you'll see how quickly it takes over.

AM You'll have noticed if you're a gardener, you'll notice how quickly the weeds take over, if you don't run the hoe up between the rows.

DR Again, we've touched on this before. What about the burns in the village?

AM Well, on the whole, I think they're maybe no too bad, because, I mean, there are sticklebacks in them. I've seen mallard, the duck, breeds in them. The water vole's in them. The one down at the Number Two Car Park, you know, the middle car park, I've seen snipe and water rails there.

DR Have you?

AM Aye. You look at the cover there. It's quite a big area. There's sticklebacks in the burn that I know of. There's flounders and eels in them.

DR We used to catch sticklebacks there, right up into the Golf Course.

AM Aye, well, they (inaudible) you see. There was a bad pollution incident there. Diesel.

DR Aye, now, I was going to ask you about that because I read somewhere about pollution incident, was it diesel was spilt in the burn, and it listed the various species that had been killed, and it mentioned trout. One or two trout. And I thought, "Are there trout in there?"

AM Aye, that's possible, ye see, because I mean, it'd be well up the burn that the trout came from. No necessarily at our bit here.

DR But, I mean, that burn there, I've never … Whereas I've seen fish … I've no seen fish in that bit of burn ever!

AM You'll know these burns better than I do Davie. You know … you were here as a boy.

DR But, I mean, I could be missing things.

AM Well, that's true, aye. But what you'll find is there could be trout there. No necessarily many, no necessarily big. It depends what the feeding's like for them as well.

DR Well, as you say, I could miss things. Alan Hay spoke about seeing dozens and dozens of big frogs down where the burn goes into the sea there. And I was surprised, because I had never seen frogs or toads in the burn at all. But if he saw them …

AM Oh aye, he saw them. Oh aye. Well, ye see, they reckon that frogs will lay their eggs anywhere, more or less. Have you ever noticed something? It's always in shallow water.

DR You see them just in dubs, up in the hills.

AM Half of the eggs are out of the water, eh? Whereas toads lay their eggs in deeper water. They lay a long string of eggs you see.

DR That was a great shame about them filling in the Quarries, in the back of Longniddry. They were full of toads. You used to see the long strings of eggs.

AM These things are a great I … I know, all right, its economically viable to get rid of your rubbish that way, but the fact is that we're short of fresh water habitats.

DR There was newts, crested newts and everything in there.

AM I know. Nowadays they wouldnae be allowed to do that. They're protected. So they wouldnae be allowed to fill in any of these quarry holes like that. It s a pity, Davie, because there is no … I mean there arenae any other … .well, in Gosford we've got ponds, but nothing

AM I can think of round about here. There's a wee one up the road right enough.

DR Up the Trabroun road there.

AM Up the Trabroun road, aye. But that's all we've got.

DR What about the actual village itself? There's a lot of trees and bushes and gardens and so on.

AM Aye, aye. Well, you know these magpies, and … we've now got carrion crows nesting in the village.

DR I'm sure that's something we never had when I was a laddie.

AM Well, I'm quite sure you didnae, because carrion crows kept well clear of humans, you know, because the hand of every man was against them, as it were.

DR Aye, so did cushies … wood pigeons. But there's a lot of these going about as well.

AM Aye, they're nesting in the village. We have them along here.

DR So they're actually nesting in the village?

AM Oh aye. My friend gets them … they're building a second nest You only see one young one out there. You know, full grown, but no mature, no mature but full grown. Well, almost as big as the adults. As long as they keep away from my vegetables I'll be quite happy.

DR The magpies can take as many of them as they like for me!


Right, we were talking about wildlife in the village. What else is there of interest?

AM Well, you mentioned earlier on the geese, Davie. You get them passing over, but you'll sometimes see them … they don't pass over all the time. Because it depends where they're feeding, what fields they're feeding on, you know, when they come in September. You know, you've maybe seen them, masses of them, going in kind of south west, then going north east making back to Aberlady to roost. We've got quite a selection of wee birds. Occasionally you get some of the migrants coming in as well. I mean, I've had things like a redstart in my garden here, and one or two other things. You know the most interesting thing I've ever had in this garden? A tiny wee leveret, a young hare.

DR How did it get here?

AM Well that's what I would like to know. It was up in among my potatoes. In the potatoes in that bit of the garden there. And it was only hand size. It could have sat in your hand. So it wasnae that long born. Very feeble. Some people reckon that when a hare has leverets it spreads them out then goes to feed them at night. By spreading them out, if a predator comes on them it'll only find one out of the whole lot, which makes sense, doesn't it? But how on earth it got there I've no idea.

DR I can imagine rabbits in the village, but …

AM I had rabbits under my hut as well one day!

DR There's plenty of them. But that's unusual to have a hare. I've seen a hare run down the Main Street, but that was a long time ago.

AM Now where did that hare have its young ones? Where were they born? That's an interesting thing. We'll never know of course.

DR Because, I mean, you'd think they'd prefer open spaces, not built up areas like this.

AM Well, they do, you see, but obviously it had brought the young one from somewhere. It wasnae born in my garden, you know, that's a racing certainty! Because we had the dog at the time, in fact it was her that pointed it out to me. When I looked in, here's this wee leveret sitting. I didnae see it again mind you. Whether she'd taken it away or what, because apparently they can shift them.

Just all the usual kind of garden birds you would say that you get about, you know. And … there are quite a few goldfinches in the village. Aye, they're lovely birds.Aye. Just the usual great tits and blue tits, stuff like that. Ken how we've got stuff coming over from the woods as well, you know, like long tailed tits and stuff. Aye. And … wait till I think of anything else in the bird line … It's interesting the carrion crows nesting here. That is interesting. In days gone by you wouldnae have got near them.

DR What about mammals in the garden?

AM Eh, I've never had any moles here bit I've no doubt there'll be moles here and there …

DR I've got moles in the garden up the Main Street.

AM I've had shrews in my garden. And I've got woodmice, no the house mouse but the woodmouse. Another interesting thing is, that burn that runs well its just at the bottom of the road there, Davie (inaudible). Rats use burns as roadways, as it were. Now, I've never seen a rat, mind, and I hope I don't because that's one thing we don't want around here.

DR The "Prefabs" that stood where Church Way is now, they were awfy bad for rats. The rats got in at the foundations. They blamed the burn for that, but they were awfy bad for rats.

AM Ye see, the burns are a highway for them, as it were. Now, whether … woodmice … I've never seen any stoats or weasels. I've seen a fox. But that's no an everyday occurrence, you know. Well, it might be an every right occurrence, we don't know about it. But they have moved into towns and cities everywhere, the fox. And so have the badgers.

DR Do you get hedgehogs?

AM Oh aye. I've had them in my garden quite regularly here.

DR Aye, I get them as well.

AM Aye, they're quite welcome. They eat the slugs. Come straight in pal! Right in here!

DR So that's about Longniddry's wildlife then.

AM Well, we could talk for hours. You've got all the insects, you know, the butterflies, and the creepy crawlies we havenae even touched on.

DR Just as a gardener now, you keep hearing about the … what is it? New Zealand flatworm or something. Has anybody in Longniddry come across that to your knowledge?

AM I'm just trying to think if anybody's had one from here or not. Apparently, I see, there's been a fresh warning out about them. I remember reading another article about it They said it was a threat to our earthworms.

DR Aye, because it eats them …

AM It's a predator as far as I know, but this article maintained it wouldnae really make a difference to our earthworm population. I don't know. I've not experienced … I've seen one, that had been brought from elsewhere in East Lothian.

DR I've never seen one.

AM Oh, they're in East Lothian. But I'm not aware … I've a funny feeling one was found somewhere in the village.

DR As long as it's no my garden!

AM Oh well, I'm the same you see. Well, worms … I'm assuming that they're hermaphrodite, you know male and female, the same as snails are, so you would need to have two to cross­fertilise the other one. You know, maybe they wouldnae make a great success of it unless there were two or three in the area.

DR Just to finish up, is there anything more you think the Council or the Government could do to improve the environment in places like Longniddry? Or is there anything the people themselves living here could do to improve their own environment and encourage wildlife?

AM Well. There is a lot of bird feeding here. Of course you've got to be careful, because it's actually against the law to feed the gulls and carrion crows, you know.

DR There's another man in Wemyss Road that's obsessed with this folk feeding the gulls!

AM Aye that's right. Well, apparently it's against the law you see. But for the wee seed eating birds and that, there's plenty folk feeding them there. I think the Longniddry folk must save a lot of wee birds in a hard winter. That might be why we've got so many blackbirds, I don't know. It could well be one of the reasons, aye. And the kind of stuff that they plant in their gardens is also a great help, you know. Say, butterfly and insect planting. A lot of folk don't want insects in their gardens, but it depends what they are but planting stuff.

As to what the government could do, you could ask for ten million pounds to spend on the countryside. It would help. But lots of places you're not going to get that. Butwhat I would … I would rather the government understood the problems of the countryside and the wildlife than have government pile money into it without knowing what they're talking about you know, that appreciated and understood the differences. You see, lots of folk say about some of the places, some of our car parks are no very tidy, you know, look at a' thae weeds! Well, as far as a naturalist goes, there's no such thing as a weed, It's only a plant growing where it's no welcome. The Council do a lot of work. Look at Levenhall links. They've built a hide there now … Well, all right, they've got money elsewhere from the R.S.P.B. and, what do you call them … the Royal Heritage …? Even then, look at that huge amount of ground there. It's all public land there and some of its more or less fenced off for wildlife.

DR I suppose that's valuable in East Lothian, because I mean, there's so much intensive agriculture here …

AM Well, there is you see. Another thing in that line is look at the Railway Walks. They're a nature reserve through an intensely farmed area, aren't they?

DR I suppose in a way they're corridors.

AM They are corridors. Corridors used by wildlife and that, you see. No, I think East Lothian have done quite a lot for the countryside. I mean, you can always do more, bit like everything else, everybody's only got limited money to spend. The great problem is that my experience is that the environment, the countryside, and all these things like wildlife and everything when there's a shortage of money it's the first to get the chop.

DR I can understand that. It's no a big high profile thing like the Health Service or Education.

AM I'll ask an interesting question, Davie. Do you know anybody that would turn off a nature film on the television?

DR I don't know … There might be. I wouldnae!

AM There cannae be many folk anyway. The majority of the public are interested.

DR They'll be interested if they get the chance, or if they give themselves the chance.

AM You see, I've always said that you can be interested without being knowledgeable. That's no deroga … I'm no degrading anybody or anything by saying that. I'm interested in a lot of things I ken nothing at all about. That doesnae matter. I'm interested in it, and that's the most important … Another thing is a lot of people don't appreciate the problem with disturbance. I mean, it you've got a birds' nest in your garden, by all means have a look at it and see how many eggs are in it.

DR But no every five minutes.

AM No every five minutes. There's lots of things. I mean, feeding birds in the winter. Lots of folk around here do it. It must do a lot of good. A lot of the wee birds will come out of the woods there in the winter time, down here and get fed, and then they'll go back to breed.

But governments, I mean, as I say, in my experience anyway, the environment's the first to get the chop, and wildlife and that, if there's a shortage of money. Who'sto say that there's not more important things than that? I used to always say, Davie, what is the point of preaching conservation to an unemployed man in a broken down old house in the city? Has that man no got more priorities than conservation? I would say so.

DR I suppose that's why farmers sometimes get annoyed about all the talk about conservation as well. If they're struggling …

AM Well, you see, they were encouraged to produce as much as they could. They were asked to do that by successive governments. Now they're saying, "Hang on a minute, don't …"

DR I aye think it's kind of like the teachers, where for decades they were told, "Do this, do that, do the next thing." And then it turned out that that was all wrong, and they shouldnae have been doing this at all.

AM Aye, I know. "Ye shouldnae hae been daein that" And that's what you were told to do. But anyway, things hopefully … I've got great hopes for all the young folk.

DR So you're optimistic then?

AM I am optimistic. But the only problem is that a lot of the young folk, when they join the system they cannae beat it. You know, when they go into the system they cannae beat it so they end up joining it instead of being, you know, determined to change it.

DR Well, I mean, certainly I used to take parties of bairns from Tranent Primary School, I'd take them up the Lammermuirs and so on, and it was amazing how interested they could be in what they were seeing. And if they saw an adder, by God they were fair away with themselves!

AM Aye. It'd be the end of the world, aye.

DR But you suspect that a lot of them, as they grow older, they'll just think … they would be interested if they gave themselves the chance, but there are far more important things, in their book, to get on with.

AM But the important thing to me would be to have them on your side. Even whether they arenae interested or no. But that doesnae always work out either.

DR Well Archie, thanks very much. That should be an interesting tape. Now, this tape might be put into an archive of similar stuff by the managers of this Fourth Statistical Account project. Is that all right with you?

AM All right by me. I don't think I've said anything that was … that'll start a revolution or a world war or anything.

DR Thanks again!

AM You're very welcome.

<< Previous | Next >>