more research from Islay

Fact finding and sampling tours of a different nature were personally conducted at Ardbeg and Caol Ila, repeat surveys were made at Laphroaig. Swift visits to Bruichalddich and Lagavulin and a pit stop at Kilchoman. Saluted Bunnahabhain on the way to Colonsay, but never got to Bowmore despite it being so central in the island.  Phew! In Cornwall a working week can be charted by the number of coffee stops to break up the fieldwork or farm visits, it’s just a slightly different beverage to look forward to here – sampled only on days off of course.

Chough based conclusions?  Although I heard a chough flying over Laphroaig (on.. ahem of three visits), Kilchoman is probably the best bet if you want to do choughs and whisky at the same time!

Whisky based conclusions?  Couldn’t possibly say which bottle(s) came home with us. I reckon there should be an expression reflecting the chough.  Black wings, smokey shadows and salt laden air.


The one that got away. View of Bunnahabhain enroute to Colonsay.


The not so cool side of making whisky is all the peat that gets extracted and burnt to provide the distinctive peaty flavours.  I use peat free compost ALWAYS, not easy to not drink the Islay malts though

mmmm  a bit of a Perpetuum Supernova going on at this one.  No otters though

mmmm a whole lot of Perpetuum Supernova going on here. No otters seen this time


my cellar is in a cupboard – Laphroaig’s cellar is a very large cupboard

The author has no affiliation with any of the above – other whisky brands are of course available and delicious.


maggots – who knew they were so interesting

When out and about on the cliffs and adjacent farmland in Cornwall  I often kick a cow pat and have a cursory look to see what inverts are lurking therein – just seeing what the choughs have likely been feasting on.  What I’ve not really done is try to ID them beyond a very basic level.

After a few days in the field with Fiona in Islay helping examine 108 cow pats and their contents (yes precision on numbers here it’s proper science), I’m still pretty low down on the learning curve and no expert, but I do have an appreciation of the diversity these piles of poo hold, their importance for our invertebrate loving choughs and how what we treat our cattle, sheep and ponies with affects these creatures.

The most common maggots we found were of yellow dung fly, some pats contained many hundreds, which got a bit tedious and easy to loose count, but among the wiggly YDFs were these little beauties, aphodius larvae (aphodius are beetles)- good juicy chough prey.

Aphodius fimetarius larvae just about to get weighed.

Aphodius fimetarius larvae just about to get weighed – yummy – if you’re a chough and much easier to count than dung fly larva

Some of the other species were very difficult to spot, especially these very tiny, brown fannia larvae (fannia are flies and include the appropriately named latrine fly).


Fannia larvae in the foreground – If I was a chough not sure I’d bother seeking them out – I suppose a chough has better eyesight-but even then.

And there were worms.  Sometimes lots of worms. Sometimes none. I got a bit fed up counting worms.

earthworms are surprisingly difficult to count when they are wriggling around

earthworms are surprisingly difficult to count when they are all entwined

I think we should all show a little more interest and respect for dung and the critters that make it their home.

the things we do for choughs

I admit I wasn’t throwing arms up in delight at spending a week of my hard earned sabbatical looking at cattle dung – let alone sifting through it by hand.  As it turned out though in a weird sort of way, I quite enjoyed it!

I had offered to help Gillian and Fiona with their ongoing study looking at the effects of commonly used parasiticides on dung invertebrates. Quite a lot of research has been undertaken on certain chemicals and their effects on inverts are known, but for some of the more commonly used products, often those recommended as being alternatives to the less wildlife friendly, it is surprising how little is known about their effects on the soil and invert community. Scary stuff.

In practice this meant sitting on a cliff top for seven hours a day shuffling between carefully laid out ‘pats’ counting and recording maggots - ugh - you’re probably saying and you’d be quite right, a small number of the pats were very sticky and a bit smelly (you quickly get a feel for ones that are going to be less pleasant to delve into), but generally cow poo after it has matured for a few weeks is ok and user friendly.  Our open air ’laboratory’ was stunning, with research sites  located at Ardnave, Smaul and here at the Oa.

View from the poo – The Oa in all its stunning beauty

Not much fancy equipment required, the kit included a bulb planter, ice cream tubs and of course surgeon’s gloves.  We did get through a few pairs of those.

scientific equipment at the ready

expensive scientific equipment at the ready

The dung pats had been collected and then, complete with the respective chemicals being tested for the effects of (plus control pats), grids of 12 pats were laid out in the different locations; we did not know which pat had received what treatment.

- it took about 15 minutes to ‘do’ a pat.


Pats were protected by wire to prevent trampling

Here’s Fiona who is doing all the fieldwork having a right mucky birthday – we did have cake but next year she deserves to have her birthday off the job!

Fiona measuring vegetation height surrounding the dung pat

Fiona measuring vegetation height surrounding the dung pat


Too busy counting maggots to admire the  views around Ardnave

  I know I know, you’re eager to see the actual maggots – next post!

there is whisky made in Cornwall!

obviously I have just been too obsessed with the Islay malts to notice – there is a Cornish  one.  GET ON as my brother would say………..Hicks and Healey whisk(e)y crafted in Cornwall, would love to try it sometime and add a bottle to my growing collection.

Whisky if you are in Scotland but apparently whiskey for the Cornish. What’s this extra e about? Not going there, just enjoy responsibly - whichever.