News and reviews

Contact Form

 June 2019:  Check out the guided geology walks and a ten-week course coming up. See the Courses & Field trips page.


September 2018

On Monday I took advantage of the clearer weather to explore Burnswark.
Where, you may ask, is Burnswark?
Frequent journeys to and from Edinburgh by means of the A74M or the WCML have, until now, included a mystery. What is the odd but very distinctive flattopped hill just NE of Ecclefechan? I have also observed it with interest from the south Solway (Cumbrian) coast.
I now know. Mystery solved. Burnswark Hill, Grid ref: NY186787.  It takes 33mins to drive to Burnswark from KPA. You leave the A74M at Junction 19 and make your way to the hill by a large number of roundabouts and  turns.  A single-track dead-end road reaches a conifer plantation where there is a turning circle and some wheelie bins. I parked there and climbed the modest slopes to reach the summit very quickly where there are extensive Roman fortifications.

The hill is also known as Birrenswark. Indeed it is this which confused me at first. This name appears not on the OS maps. I have jokingly suggested to Alison that this derivation is an English person's onomatopoeic rendering of Burnswark. A Scot might pronounce it "Burr'nswark."  There is an early Carboniferous-aged lava suite known as the Birrenswark lava Group, not brilliantly exposed thereon but notable across the SE part of Scotland's borders.  The hill has a meltwater channel to the ENE and a very steep N facing slope. Presumably due to ice age activity.

It is not difficult to see why this very modest summit attracted the Romans. The views are very extensive. The IOM appeared not long after I had wandered around the summit,  with a small group of skylarks and a bigger group of meadow pipits as company. As the air cleared further, I was able to see south across Cumbria to Wild Boar Fell and The Howgills.  In the Lake District I could easily see Blencathra-Skiddaw and  also Scafell Pike. Criffel looked good too and the south Solway coast beyond Whitehaven to St Bees Head. was easily seen.  Cross Fell and Geltsdale fells easily visible, and Dixon's Chimney and the flat reflective roofs of Kingstown industrial estate located Carlisle, though I was looking into the glare from the sun.

Northwards of course the view was dominated by the Lowther Hills, peeping above these was the top of Tinto. The fells around Devil's Beef Tub at Moffat are close by and I could see the hen harrier hills around Langholm. Walking on the top is very easy and the gates are easy to open. The slight downside was that the roar of the A74M could be heard and the occasional train.
You got the impression of the summit of Burnswark  being very much higher than it really is, so this is a walk for those with dodgy knees or age-related concerns who want commanding views. Late afternoon or sunset would be spectacular.

Roman surveyors knew what they were doing. I would have loved that job!!

April 2018

Have returned from Sicily. The holiday included a visit to MT Etna. The volcano was steaming and smoking quietly, rather like a steam locomotive in a station. However, it was very absorbing to explore an ancient lava tube and look at the recent lava flows and their extent. Next time, I will try to get nearer the summit than I did on this occasion. I also examined the oldest volcanic rocks associated with Etna, the pillow lavas and columnar basalts on the coast between Acicastello and  Aciterrezza.


November 2017

Have heard about the death on Saturday Nov 11th of Dr Charles Henry Emeleus. He is mentioned elsewhere in this website. He was a tremendous field geologist with a very perceptive eye for patterns and structures in igneous rocks, especially those of the Tertiary (Palaeogene) volcanics on the NW parts of Scotland NE Ireland and Greenland.







Book review: Nature’s Conscience – the life and legacy of Derek Ratcliffe

ed Des Thompson, Hilary Birks & John Birks Langford Press ISBN978-1-904078-60-9

For only £30, this 572 page hardback is incredible value and is clearly a labour of respect and devotion for one of Britain’s greatest naturalist-scientist-conservationists, edited by his closest colleagues and friends.

Derek Ratcliffe (1929-2005) became Chief Scientist of the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) but through-out his career he encountered and navigated some very difficult conservation issues. Many of these were of national concern and the resolution of which have had profound effects on the course of nature conservation over the years.  Some of these issues included the discovery that DDT was the cause of eggshell thinning in peregrines and the threat to place under forestation what are known as the Caithness Flows, thus draining Europe’s largest area of blanket bog.

Derek Ratcliffe was also the author of many influential works such as “A nature conservation review” “Bird life of mountain and upland” and two volumes in the celebrated Collins New Naturalist series namely “Lakeland” and “Galloway and the Borders”.

Compiling an appreciation of some-one’s life and its impact is a very difficult task. Nature’s Conscience achieves this very well indeed. There is a lively mix of personal recollection and anecdote of Derek as friend, colleague and mentor. This matched with detailed and closely structured writing about his professional achievements and specialties. Derek was not a man with a single interest or focus. He was a naturalist – a polymath. He had deep understanding of botany, ornithology and geography. He was all young scientists should aspire to – a well informed all-rounder with his depth of knowledge and understanding reaching into almost all areas. When I was studying geology at the University of Durham, one of my teachers said that he thought the time of the polymath was coming to an end. For “polymath”, read “naturalist”. He argued that in-depth specialism would leave the person unable to relate his or her knowledge to the wider context. Indeed, I came across this recently when encountering in the field by chance a PhD student investigating the Scotch Argus butterfly but didn’t know what an Northern Eggar moth was and asked me to identify it.

Derek did not compromise on his standards by being a polymath. He made sure of that and therefore he stands as a beacon to all who hope to dip their toes into the difficult world of nature conservation. His life and approach is a role model and a life to which all should aspire. Be not afraid of being broad.

Derek’s interest in nature started out when he was a child in Norfolk and fuelled by the quiet enthusiasm of members of the Carlisle Natural History Society to which city he moved and lived through his teens. Like so many, his interest was started at a young age. The foundations for a polymath are laid then.

Nature’s Conscience is multi-authored and deftly edited by Des Thompson and John & Hilary Birks, The risk with multi-authorship on a subject like Derek Ratcliffe is that one might get a pastiche in different styles that, in the end, does not work as a whole and leave us feeling that his life was disjointed. However, this book does succeed in pulling together these diverse strands and the result is a compelling read. It is essentially, a history of 20th C conservation, particularly those areas which came under the remit of Derek Ratcliffe. It exposes the fault lines in 20th C conservation and Derek’s handling of them.

It succeeds because of the way the book is structured, dealing with aspects of his work. The five sections are Derek Ratcliffe – the young naturalist; the botanist; the ornithologist; the conservationist and the communicator.  Each section ends with one of Derek’s own articles on the subject.

Contributors have written in their own personal style and this can make the flow of continuous reading a little more difficult. I found that the best way to read the book was to dip into it and not attempt to read it from beginning to end.

On a few occasions, I sensed that some writers had strayed a little from the impact Derek had on the topic under discussion into a wider discussion of the arguments, but in the end, these are probably necessary diversions to help the reader understand Derek’s motivation and understanding of the issues.

The book is lavishly produced, with excellent illustrations mainly colour photographs and it is well researched and referenced. It also lists Derek’s own writing corpus.

If anyone is looking for biography, then this is not it. We get very little insight into Derek as a human, a husband and a colleague. We learn little of his personal life, feelings  and interests outside conservation. We learn little of his spirituality and not much about his interest in trains, especially steam locomotives. In his own autobiographical book “In search of Nature” it is quite clear, for instance, that  he took an interest in railways.

However as a book to inspire a new generation of professional conservationists, “Nature’s Consciencethe life and legacy of Derek Ratcliffe” succeeds outstandingly.

Derek Ratcliffe should stand high in the consciousness of all who seek to work as conservationists either practically or academically. His career shows what is possible with dedication, drive, enthusiasm and above all singular concern for living organisms other than ourselves. This book could be a vade-mecum for all aspiring student environmentalists and conservationists. In short, it ought to be compulsory reading by such people.

Stephen Mott 2015, revised 2018.

Book Review: NORTHUMBERLAND (with Alston Moor): Angus Lunn, Collins New Naturalist series, 2004 ISBN 0-00718483-2 £25 paperback, (or £40 for hardback version)

Northumberland is England’s most northerly county; indeed some of it lies well to the north of parts of Scotland – the town of Alnwick is roughly parallel to Ayr in Scotland - and few people live within its borders. The sparseness of the population is owed in part to the turbulent history of its past, the disputed allegiances, its landscapes and its weather. It maintains much of what might be considered traditional England – local shops, friendly, often supportive communities, good manners and an open friendliness to visitors. However, like many scenic areas it has become a victim of its own success, leading to many second homes being bought with the resulting threat to local communities and stability and unrealistic house prices. However, Northumberland’s wildlife still stands out as something special, perhaps retaining much that has been lost elsewhere. It is, for instance, a stronghold of the Red Squirrel and I have often seen this beautiful rodent, much smaller than its grey relative, in the woods, churchyards and gardens of the county and have been involved in surveys which may help to keep this indigenous English species buoyant in the county. Northumberland’s coast, while not a cliff-spectacular, has superb beaches, carrs and dunes rich in wildlife all year, and together with its islands (Farnes, Lindisfarne and Coquet in particular) provide the visiting birdwatcher a feast of delights. So how is all this reflected in the recently published volume in the famous New Naturalist series?

This long running and admirable series was begun in the 1950s with a volume on Butterflies and it has continued since building up into a comprehensive overview of British Natural History. The series is aimed at informed naturalists whose knowledge of science can range from basic to sophisticated, and authors are chosen for their ability to write sound science in an approachable way. The author of “Northumberland”, Angus Lunn, is a native of the county and a biogeographer, who until early retirement worked at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He has served as a naturalist in his home county and now lives in the North Pennines. The book follows the format of other “regional” titles in the series, with chapters covering the history of scientific research, the pre-quaternary geology, the ice ages, climate and soils, ecology and flora and fauna. These are then followed by chapters on specific habitats, most notably the coast and Kielder Forest with its contentious habitat of lake and coniferous forest. As is now de rigueur for this series, a chapter on the conservation issues affecting Northumberland is included.

The text is illustrated by maps, tables charts and black and white photos (of variable quality it has to be said – perhaps they could have been printed at a larger size) and a collection of excellent colour plates making full use of Northumberland photographers such as Allan Potts and John Steele. Although this book is unashamedly scientific and does not eschew scientific nomenclature, Dr Lunn often defines the terms as he goes along, writing in an easy going style but full of interest and information. His work is accurate and rigorous.

This book is refreshingly satisfying and I often found myself exclaiming out loud as I discovered within its pages an answer to something which had previously puzzled me. Like all text books, you can dip into anywhere. I was less happy with the account of the climate of Northumberland, I had expected to see more in the way of statistics and comparisons with areas to the west of the region, given that the Pennines and Cheviots act as a type of rainshadow. I would also like to have read more about the influence, for good or ill, of the large estates on the wildlife and natural history of the county. But these are not much more than quibbles.

Together with the recently published volume on Lakeland, the whole of Northern England (except for Yorkshire) is now comprehensively covered by two of the New Naturalist series. Northumberland is essential reading for anyone for whom the county is more than simply a place to live. It should be on the shelves of anyone who has interests in the wildlife and landscapes of this remote and sparsely populated border county. It is, quite simply, a very worthy vade-mecum. You should get a copy.

Stephen Mott, Jan 2005




Book review: Collins NN “Marches” Andrew Allott.

In the early 1980s, I lived and worked in Gloucester and undertook numerous outings to the Welsh Marches to walk and watch wildlife. So Andrew Allott's book "Marches" has been eagerly awaited. It is a superb, masterly addition to the NN series.

Here we have a comprehensive account of the region, which is meticulously researched and thoughtfully detailed. The text includes examples to illustrate the wider context and the themes of the chapters. Mr Allott makes very good use of local sources and resources for much of these, such as the charming reference to the work done by a local Primary School (p.75) and other local people, communities and wildlife groups. This is absolutely the right approach as it embeds the book in the region it describes.

The book is well structured; the first chapter invites us to take a "tour" of the region's main, distinctive topographical areas which serve as a scaffold for the following chapters, whose themes take the unique and chararcteristic features of the Border landscape arising within the topographical areas.

Mr Allott writes in an interesting and flowing style. It is well structured. His attention to detail is woven seamlessly into the overview, the carefully chosen examples serve as fascinating insights into the natural history of the region.

The chapters cover the expected themes but include up-to-date analysis ands review of nature conservation, farming, land-use changes and local development and management, and outlining lessons learned and issues for the future. I found myself thinking that the lessons learned in the Marches region could well be applied elsewhere too!

My only niggles are in the editing of the book.  In trying to fit some of the Figures on to one page renders some of the detail too small to read, (make it almost meaningless) or makes the use of colour coding difficult to differentiate. There are inconsistencies too - why can Figs 16 or 104 for example be provided with a colour key, yet Figs 81 and 82 are not? For the latter, the reader has to wade through text which explains the colour.

On p41 we have an ambiguous paragraph which, on first reading, makes it seem that a new set of semi-natural squatters have returned to the Clee Hills. I suspect that the word "vegetation" has been omitted after the word "semi-natural"!  Perhaps trying to publish 3 NN titles a year is having a negative effect on the editing.

These small niggles do not detract very much from this magnificent account of the varied, rich and very distinctive natural history of the Marches. To try to shoe-horn this into any descriptive framework is a challenge and one in which Mr Allott has succeeded - and succeeded triumphantly.

Sept 2011