Plants and pollinators on the islands

If I were to stop a stranger in the street, and mention the phrase ‘Mid Ebudes’, most would understandably scurry off to consult Wikipedia. A very few might nod sagely, and acknowledge in a heart-beat that this was a reference to Vice County 103, a biological recording zone which likely dates back to the 1850s. In the latter camp you would find my former colleague Lynne Farrell, for the Mid Ebudes is ‘her patch’.

When I asked Lynne if she could provide a little insight into her dealings with pollinators in the course of her botanising she replied, as I knew she would, with a very accommodating ‘Yes’.  What follows is Lynne’s insight into the pollinators she has observed at close quarters whilst recording plants.

Lynne is one of our most noted botanists. She worked for both English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage, is a Past President of the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland, recorder for the Mid Ebudes since 1996. Her interest in botany and conservation remains as strong as ever, after a lengthy and distinguished career. 

“The three islands of Coll, Mull and Tiree are now collectively known for botanical purposes as Mid Ebudes,” explains Lynne. “We believe the name to be a corruption of the word Hebrides. Pliny the Elder about 77AD mentioned it in his Natural History stating that there are 30 Hebudes. Ptolemy used the name Ebudes, which may be of pre-Celtic origin. Old Norse is Suoreyjar meaning Southern Isles, and the Gaelic Innse Gall. Today we simply know them as the Outer, Mid and Inner Hebrides. 

“Since 1996 when I came to work in Scotland, I have been the botanical recorder for these islands, getting to know their natural history and the people.”

It’s a wonderful patch to cover.  As Lynne is quick to note, some of the species she has encountered are special and threatened. These include Oysterplant, Irish Lady’s Tresses, Eyebrights, Burnet moths, Great Yellow Bumblebee and Northern Colletes mining bee. They all feature in the Species on the Edge project, an ambitious programme which draws together nine species recovery projects in a partnership designed to achieve benefits for more than 37 vulnerable and threated species. 

“Even though research has been carried on some of these species for many years”, Lynne notes that “we still don’t know some of the answers to the relationship between the plants and the pollinators.” Nevertheless, I asked Lynne for a personal perception on the some of the species that have found themselves included in Species on the Edge

“Irish Lady’s Tresses orchid is an oceanic species which has a wide distribution in north America and, as its name suggests, is scattered around the west coast of Ireland particularly in Connemara, County Clare. The flowerheads resemble platted hair or tresses. In Britain it is largely confined to western Scotland in Argyll, Outer Hebrides, Colonsay and the Mid Ebudes. Perhaps surprisingly, given its status as a national rarity, it is quite mobile in its appearance in these areas. Often disappearing from traditional sites and regularly being found at new locations. It appears to have what you might call a ‘Goldilocks’ relationship with grazing: too little and the sward closes over its head, too much and it gets trampled and bitten off. On Coll, some of the key areas for it are managed by RSPB.  For many years we have being trying to find out what pollinates this orchid but so far very few insects have been observed visiting the tiny flowers and hardly any ripe seedpods have been produced. In North America this is no problem, so perhaps the answer lies there? Perhaps the insect which pollinates it further afield does not occur in Britain.

“Oysterplant occurs round the northern coasts of Britain and Northern Ireland where it grows in gravelly places, often at the top of beaches where it survives  ‘reshaping’ of the beach profile by storms. Orkney is its stronghold in Scotland, but it is found on Mull, Coll and Tiree also. It is an attractive, large, flowering plant with succulent leaves, supposedly tasting of oysters, and was eaten by people when it was more abundant around our coasts. Sheep and cattle still find it very edible and often graze it right down to the ground. It has very long roots, which hold it fast into the gravel, and the large, black seeds are scattered by the wind movements when they are ripe in autumn. They are carried along on the sea currents to new places where they may germinate several years later. Once again, there is little information about pollinators, but the pink and blue flowers are sufficiently open for bees to crawl into.

Great Yellow Bumblebee (c) and courtesy of John Bowler (RSPB)

“The Great Yellow Bumblebee is a real specialty of the Hebrides where it inhabits flower-rich sand-dunes and machair, where it occurs alongside a buzzing assortment of bees, including the striking agricola form of the Moss Carder and the ‘communal’ solitary bee, the  Colletes. The Great Yellow may once have occurred on Iona off the western tip of Mull, but in the mid Ebudes it is now confined to Tiree and Coll. Several research projects have been undertaken on the species over the last 20 years. It has declined on Coll, where it is now rare and very localised, although it remains widespread and locally frequent on Tiree. Recent findings indicate that the bee thrives in areas that have high densities of Kidney Vetch early in the season and Common Knapweed later in the season, with plenty of Red Clover in mid-summer. 

“All of the best areas for the species on Tiree benefit from agri-environment schemes that involve either a complete grazing break or a drop in stocking rates during the summer months to allow the machair flowers to bloom. It is a distinctive species, the queens are often larger in size than those of the ‘normal’ bumblebees, with a characteristic bright yellow body carrying a distinct black band on the thorax. You may be fortunate to see or hear it buzzing through the vegetation – calm sunny days in August are the best time to look, when the bees are at their highest density. 

“Burnet moths are also to be seen, with their distinctive black and red wings. But it is only on Mull where the rare Slender Scotch Burnet can be found. The similar Transparent Burnet is more widely scattered from the Mull of Kintyre, on Mull and Ulva, and northwards to Skye, Canna and Rum. However, it is the Six-spot Burnet which you are most likely to see during June, July and August.There are 10 species of Burnets recorded in Great Britain and Ireland and about 800 species worldwide. They live in colonies and the adults are active during the day, flying around from flower to flower mainly on warm, south-facing grassy slopes. On Mull active management is taking place to control invading Cotoneaster, which spreads quickly over the ground blanketing many of the low-growing herbaceous plants. Volunteers are needed , so if you fancy a working holiday on a Hebridean island, please get in touch with Butterfly Conservation Scotland.”

With a distinguished career as a botanist Lynne’s views are built on a solid bedrock of experience and dedication. You may not have heard of the Mid Ebudes, but chances are if you have an interest in conservation and botany you will know the name Lynne Farrell.

Further reading

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Great Yellow Bumblebee (c) and courtesy of John Bowler (RSPB)