An unwelcome arrival

You may have seen the news that a sighting of an Asian hornet (Vespa velutina) was confirmed in the Fowey area of Cornwall. Since then there have been further sightings in Liskeard, Cornwall, and Hull, East Yorkshire. Asian hornets have been widespread in France since 2004, but hadn’t been recorded in the UK until late summer 2016 when a nest was located in Gloucestershire.

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Asian hornet. Image © Jean Haxaire

These sightings are not good news because Asian hornets are aggressive predators, feeding on honey bees and other insects – although we don’t know yet the extent of damage they cause. Previous outbreaks of the Asian hornet have been successfully contained by the UK government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency using bee inspectors who promptly track down and destroy the nests. The intention is to do the same again.

If the Asian hornet becomes established in England, it may eventually reach Scotland. Therefore it is important to be able to identify this invasive species and report possible sightings. The Asian hornet is likely to be near beehives, so beekeepers in particular should be on the alert.

Asian hornet. Image © Jean Haxaire

Asian hornet. Image © Jean Haxaire

The Asian hornet can be easily mistaken for our native species, even though it is smaller. One of the key features for identification is the abdomen; it is entirely dark except for the fourth segment, which is yellow. Native hornets have a yellow abdomen with black patches or stripes.

The GB Non-native Species Secretariat has produced an ID sheet and alert poster that are very useful for identification.  Also non-native species and mobile applications experts at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology have collaborated with the UK government to develop a new app to record and monitor sightings of the Asian hornet.

Suspected sightings can be reported to or through an online form.

You can also follow the DEFRA twitter account for updates.

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Images 1 and 2 © Jean Haxaire


Stirling’s On the Verge

Since 2010 a community project, called ‘On the Verge’, has helped around 90 organisations to sow over 7.500 square metres of native wildflowers around Stirling and Clackmannanshire.  Now some eight years on they are a shining example of what can be done with a mix of expertise, drive and sheer enthusiasm. I spoke with Leigh Biagi who explained what drove the group to make such a positive contribution for pollinators.

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“When people ask me why we launched this project I point to the alarming decline in bee numbers in recent years. We knew that whilst this was for a variety of reasons, one reason was clearly the reduction of floral food resources in the countryside due to large-scale agricultural activity and we thought we could help offset that loss. We noted the evidence that bees and other pollinators are moving to urban areas in search of food, attracted by the nectar-rich garden plants. So that was something we felt we could make a positive contribution to, by helping to manage our urban green-spaces in a way that helps bridge the feeding gap left by changes to our countryside. That was the inspiration for On the Verge.

“Having that vision was one thing, delivering it required that got involved in managing land, and of course we weren’t land owners. However, we have found a willing partners in Stirling Council, and they have supported the project from the outset by sowing up large areas of wildflowers throughout the city, and beyond, with some spectacular results.


“Of course, it isn’t all plain sailing and from time to time we have to remind people why we do what we do. Perception can be a big issue. For whilst people like the idea of flowers, and like the idea of the bees, they are sometimes not so keen on what they see as a switch from previously neatly manicured patches of ground to what might at first glance look a bit messy.

“So we had to meet that attitude head-on and explain that actually if everything is neat and tidy and highly managed then nature isn’t going to get the pollinator-provision it needs.

“We had work at shifting attitudes to get the wider public accepting that areas set aside for wildflowers will look great at some points and perhaps less so at others, but throughout they will help nature flourish.”


“It’s a labour intensive effort to set up a wildflower meadow so we have been extremely grateful for the partnership we have forged with Stirling’s ‘Unpaid Volunteers Service’ (formally known as The Criminal Justice Service) who prepare some of our sites for us.

“We were delighted one of Chris Packham’s bioblitz stops was at an On the Verge site. The star of BBC’s popular Autumnwatch show visited Beechwood in Stirling to look at our work to help the local bee population. That was a real feather in our cap and a welcome piece of national endorsement and coverage. Chris’ presence helps small organisations such as ourselves by shining a light on the work we are doing and encourage the public to get involved. This is tremendous recognition

“I’d say that after eight years we are quite well placed to offer advice to others who would like to do something similar in the Stirling or Clackmannanshire area.

“Step one would be that if you or your community group want to establish a wildflower patch you get help in identifying a suitable area. This is an area that requires a systematic approach and we can help to steer this process which begins with the group seeking permission from the landowner.  Next up you would look to  organise the preparation of the site, and then if successful projects contact us we can supply the seed free of charge and offer support and guidance for the sowing process. We expect any project that launches a project of this kind to act as “guardians” for the site (this simply involves keeping an eye on the site and letting us know how it progresses), and together we work to make sure the flowers develop year after year.

“Naturally people are keen to know what wildflower seed mix we sow. We have developed a special “On the Verge” mix in conjunction with Scotia Seeds, that’s the firm we purchase all our wildflower seed from. The mix has an annual component of four species which will flower in the first year and around twenty perennial species which will develop over subsequent years. We aim to include flowers which are aesthetically pleasing to humans whilst still offering rich sources of nectar for a wide variety of pollinators.

“On the Verge sites have been the subject of published research by the University of Stirling. This has used a comparison method between local sites of short managed grass with sites we have managed in their first year (annual flowerings) and second year and older sites (perennial flowerings).


“Both first and second year sites attracted many more bees than the short, managed grass, however, data showed that the perennial flowers attracted a far, greater abundance and diversity of bees than the annuals. This is because the perennial plants offer a wider range of flower shapes, appealing to a greater variety of bee species, and being more mature plants, offer superior nutritional levels than the annuals. Although the annual flowers are very popular with community groups, as they can look spectacular, the perennials are of most value to pollinators by a long way, and will continue to grow year after year, only requiring an annual cutback around the time of the last grass-cutting.”

On the Verge is a pollinator triumph.  You can find out more about their work on their highly informative website.

They also have a busy facebook page you can follow.

On the Verge have over 30 successful sites they can point to, many of which are featured on their facebook page

Let’s hear it for Greenock

In the height of summer the M8 motorway, as it winds from the Erskine Bridge towards Greenock, is a lovely route to travel. The views of the Argyll hills and the glint of light on the mouth of the River Clyde never fail to impress. However, stop off in Greenock and you will be captivated by some very special urban greenspaces.

A good first stop would be the Belville area of Greenock.


Here the energetic citizens of Greenock have been transforming a deserted plot with panache and no little skill. Belville Gardens sits on a site which became vacant when seven high-rise blocks of flats were demolished. People campaigned strongly not to have the site developed, and they decided they wanted a community garden.

From this campaign has grown a sense of community and the area now houses both a community garden and a biodiversity garden.

The Community Garden grows fruit and vegetables for local use in cookery classes, commercial preserves and for community distribution. Seven rectangular-shaped raised beds are used for vegetable growing and named after the high flats which once stood on the site. Amongst recent successes have been potatoes, onions, brussel sprouts, and leeks.

The Belville Trust owns part of the site, although they continue to work closely with River Clyde Homes who own the bit which contains the Inverclydebuzz biodiversity garden. In this bit of land the emphasis is on providing a home for nature, and there is a particular emphasis on providing food and shelter for pollinators. But people are very welcome too and eventually it will have a woodland and wildflower walk, along with information panels.



Laura Reilly, of Inverclydebuzz, and Lorne Gill, SNH’s award-winning photographer.

Laura Reilly, a local beekeeper, sits on the board of the Belville Trust and was one of the driving forces behind the biodiversity garden in particular. It’s an achievement to be proud of as Laura explained when we met recently “I think bringing a bit of joy back into the community and using nature and biodiversity within an urban area is a good thing. It’s something that people can feel involved in.  We have a really popular facebook site that can get thousands of hits, so clearly it’s a popular development. At the end of the day it is simply nice to have a bit of breathing space in this area for the local community to enjoy.”

The biodiversity garden at Belville Crescent epitomises the hard work involved in turning a pipedream into reality. When you first see the site the impression is of an army of professional workers having been here, but once the site was cleared it was ordinary people who transformed the site.


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A huge log that dominates one corner of the site was a gift from Ardgowan Estate and a friendly local farmer used his tractor to transport it to the site. The impressive bug hotel was made by Conservation Trust Volunteers, whilst a local Scout pack built the cairn and the seating on the site. River Clyde Homes very kindly laid the path. Maintenance of any site is important and in Greenock a Monday Gardening Club uses the site regularly.  They provide invaluable help by continually clearing up, and helping with the inevitable seasonal jobs. There may not be any rare species to report at Belville Gardens but the increasing number of pollinators is impressive and the locals will keep on surveying and hopefully see a ‘year on year’ increase.

Why did Laura get involved? “I am a local beekeeper and keen on planning gardens. It is in the local beekeeping constitution that we should be doing work to promote biodiversity. We got a little grant from Tesco and we started hunting for little patches of land and it just snowballed from there really.  We are now in the fortunate position of having a grant from Central Scotland Green Network to carry out some more strategic work and this will help us move from being opportunistic and looking for ad hoc patches of land, to doing something more structured.”  A vision now is creating a green corridor in Inverclyde that will benefit pollinators and people.

For any community looking to follow in the footsteps of Greenock there are lessons that the the Belville Trust are only too happy to share.

To summarise them all here would be impossible, but here are a few key jumping off points.  Having good communications with the council always pays dividends. More often than not the council are a key partner in any works and working with them is a key step in moving ideas along.  Having a vision of what you want the transformation to achieve is important too. And patience is certainly a virtue in this line of work.  Seeing a site ripe for transformation is one thing, getting to know its qualities is another and the suggestion is that taking time to find out what thrives in the area and what kind of soil you are going to be working with is another vital step.  The simple act of looking at and surveying a potential site is certainly a must. And reach out to other groups, there is a lot of help and advice out there.

Higher up in Greenock sits Blairmore Crescent, and here Inverclydebuzz have another success story to tell.  They don’t own the site but working with the council they have been able to ‘acquire’ the land under the trees here to create ‘bee and butterfly glades’. The council maintain the site, particularly the closely mown grass but were keen to help the group enhance the look and biodiversity of the area. That was a great opportunity and the council expertise in dealing with contaminated land – the site sits on a former railway site – was an absolute must.

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Visiting in the height of summer the glades were a riot of colour and texture. As Laura noted a lot of planning and a little dash of luck went a long way here, “I’m glad we planted a mixture of seeds, and that mix of seeds from Scotia Seeds has meant that we have not only had a slightly different look to the glade each year, but we have had things coming out at different times.  Although the Council have given us patches of land to use here they very kindly still manage this for us and that means that they don’t cut the grass in spring and summer but take away the risings when summer draws to an end. We couldn’t achieve what we have here without the Council being right behind us.”

Transforming brownfield sites, and enhancing existing green spaces, are wonderful achievements. Once famed for ships and sugar Greenock is firmly on track to be a leading light in creating urban havens for pollinators and people.

Watch the short film about the work of Inverclyebuzz in Greenock @

Find out more about Inverclydebuzz on their website.


How to sow a wildflower meadow

John Frater, who works at Scotland’s Rural College, is our guest blogger today.  Here he summarises a talk he gave at the InverclydeBuzz conference in July looking at creating wildflower meadows.


If the following basic principles are grasped then you could be looking forward to a lovely meadow. It’s not rocket science, it just needs careful planning and of course maintenance.

Site Analysis: There are various kinds of wildflower meadow. Is it wet, dry, lowland, upland, acidic or basic.. etc? Some sites can be a combination of several of these. Walk over your site and look out for wet depressions, or areas where it is particularly dry, or the soils are particularly thin. Establish the pH of the soil and how fertile it is. Once you have a good sense of the conditions on the site you are more likely to select species for your meadow that will thrive there.

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There are generic ‘wildflower meadow’ seed mixes on the market but I’d avoid these. There is a large proportion of grasses (often 80%) in these mixtures and the species in them are not selected to suit your conditions. However, where a mixture is sold as ‘wet meadow mix’, or ‘clay soil meadow mix’ then you are on safer ground. If budget allows I would recommend sowing a mix that is 100% wildflowers — this assumes that grasses will find their own way in eventually. Doing this ensures a higher establishment rate of the forbs (grasses germinate faster and earlier).

Composing the Seed Mix: It is possible to design your own mixture. This does involve a bit of maths and a spreadsheet! It’s not that grim really – if you take a look at the wonderful new book, by James Hitchmough of Sheffield University, ‘Sowing Beauty’ you will be guided through the steps:

Design Tips: There are some design principles worth bearing in mind as well. Firstly, the simplest and most important of these is to do with the relative amounts of plants from different height categories. A good looking meadow has a variety of structure – rather than just being a flat topped expanse. Below is a good rule of thumb when thinking about structural variety:

  1. Tall ‘emergent’ species.(900-1500+mm)
  2. Medium height species. (300-600mm)
  3. Low growing species. (50-200mm)
  4. 5-15% emergent species.
  5. 30-40% medium height species.
  6. 50% low and ground cover species.

Secondly, you want some variety over time. Often meadows in nature have flowering combinations that come in waves. Two or three species flowering at any one time, followed by another two of three species. So think about the flowering times of the species you select to ensure a spread over as long a season as possible.


3rd year 1Site Preparation and Sowing: The crucial thing here is to clear the site of all perennial weeds. This means either spraying with herbicide, or scraping off the existing vegetation. If perennial plants are left in the soil (perhaps just ploughed in, for example) then they will quickly cover the site again and prevent the germination of your seeds.

Some cultivation is required – approximately 25mm deep is sufficient unless there is known to be a lot of compaction. With a reasonable tilth cultivated you are ready to sow. Your seeds need to be mixed with a ‘carrier’ such as moist sawdust. You’ll need 2 handfuls of sawdust per square meter. Mix thoroughly the seeds with the sawdust. Then walk in rows giving each square meter a handful of the seed/sawdust mixture. Once the whole area is covered repeat but this time walking in rows at 90 degrees from the original rows. Once the seeds are broadcast, rake with a wooden pegged rake and then roll the surface.

Maintenance: Essentially this involves establishing a cutting regime that will have the effect of controlling the vigour of the grasses. Grasses left unchecked will gradually edge out the forbs. The following gives a general idea of what to do:

There has to be one summer ‘hay cut’ in late July or early August at the latest (to 40-75mm).

  • This removes nutrients from the site – steadily reducing fertility (over many years).
  • Doing this main cut in sections over several weeks on a large site helps support diversity.
  • Then cut throughout the winter. On a fertile site you might cut it 4 more times.
  • However, leaving small patches to stand all winter is valuable for over wintering insects.
  • One cut in spring – some time in April – will take out the first flush of the grass growth and make space for the forbs – which are usually slower into growth than the grasses.


Scotia Seeds are a well established Scottish producer with a variety of mixes to choose from.

Emorsgate Seeds are a good source for seeds and further information.