Natural History

Wildlife

Ducks on the Skating pond by Norman Rodger

Ducks on the Skating pond by Norman Rodger

It’s been estimated that nearly one-third of British nesting birds can be found in the countryside around Helensburgh. There are butterflies here which are in danger of disappearing further south. Animal life is diverse on land while salmon, otters and seals are found in the Clyde near Helensburgh.

Why should there be so much wildlife? One reason is the variety of types of habitat: mud flats, shore-line, open moors, agricultural land, domestic gardens, woodlands, reservoirs and rivers. We are fortunate in having so many types of landscape and seascape close together and close to the town.

Another reason is the existence of our Green Belt and its protection. The combination of urban sprawl, commercialism and industrialisation has blighted other areas, but we can be grateful for the principled protection of countryside by local authorities to date and the actions of various local groups to emphasise its enhancement and conservation.

This page does no more than give a flavour of the wildlife features which surround us, but at the end we provide some sources to which enthusiasts can turn for more thorough information. This page concentrates on birds, animals and insects – a separate page deals with plant life.

Birds

Adult Swan on the Skating pond by Norman Rodger

Adult Swan on the Skating pond by Norman Rodger

It’s common to see bird enthusiasts with binoculars and cameras in our Green Belt. The area already has a reputation for bird life, whether on the moors, in the fields or by the shore.

Birds of prey include Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Buzzard, Peregrine and the Hen Harrier. Of particular interest is the appearance of Merlin close to the town. Barn Owls, Long-eared and Short-eared Owls and Tawny Owls are in evidence. Pheasant, Red Grouse, Black Grouse, Stonechat, Whinchat, Curlew, Raven, Meadow Pipit and Snipe are also seen in the moorlands, as is the uncommon Ring Ouzel.

By the shore are Goldeneye, Eider, Red-breasted Mergansers, Mallard and other duck. Also Cormorants, Red-throated Diver, Oystercatchers, Plovers, Redshanks, species of Gull and Tern and many others. Birds by inland waters include Grey Herons, Grey Wagtails, Sand Martins and Reed Buntings.

In woodlands you can find Woodcock, Jays, Tree Pipits, different Warblers (e.g. Willow, Wood, Grasshopper and Blackcap), Cuckoos, Rooks, Woodpeckers, various types of Tit and so the list could continue. One of the more unusual little birds is the Crossbill which is found among Scots Pines because it has, as its name suggests, a bill designed to extract seeds from inside fir cones.

Common Toad

Common Toad

Animals

The largest wild animals in our Green Belt are Roe deer which can be seen as close to the town as the Duchess Wood, the Blackhill Plantation, the Blackhill Mire and even on the Golf Course! Indeed, in a cold winter when searching for food they have been observed in private gardens in the town. Also prepared to enter town are foxes, hedgehogs and, as lawn lovers will know, so are moles. Rabbits and grey squirrels are everywhere, of course, but the red squirrel has left this area. Stoats, weasels, badgers, voles and a range of other creatures great and small enliven walks in the Helensburgh countryside, including lizards, newts, frogs and toads. The Pipistrelle Bat also flits through our evening sky.

Butterflies

Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary

Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary

There is mounting anxiety elsewhere in Britain about the rate at which butterflies are disappearing from our countryside due to a combination of intensive farming, industrialisation and global warming. However, we have been quite fortunate in the Helensburgh area not only because we have not suffered the worst of commercial impact (and, as a residential town, we may hope to avoid it) but because warming may even be leading some southern butterflies to move further north. The Orange-tip and Peacock in particular have increased their range.

Eighteen species of butterfly have been recorded in the Green Belt. The population of Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries is particularly valuable as this is a species that has declined rapidly in England. They can be found along the Upland Way, and near Daligan and Ben Bowie.

Scotch Argus Butterfly

Scotch Argus Butterfly

Of special local interest in our Green Belt is the large colony of the uncommon Green Hairstreak Butterfly, together with a small number of the rare Large Heath butterfly, at Blackhill Mire. Blackhill Mire is the last area of intact wet heathland and raised bog in the Green Belt and has unfortunately suffered in recent years from damage, and drainage attempts.

The Purple Hairstreak butterfly is a local species in Scotland but can be found in our Green Belt at Inverlauren Wood and at other Oak woodlands along the Fruin. Other species of interest include the Scotch Argus, Dark Green Fritillary, Small Heath, Small Tortoiseshell and the Green-veined White, our most common butterfly in the Green Belt.

Mother Shipton Moth

Mother Shipton Moth

Moths, too, are in abundance and of many types including the Emperor Moth, Northern Eggar, Drinker Moth, Wood Tiger, Clouded Buff and the curious Mother Shipton Moth, with markings on the wing resembling the face of the Prophet Witch Mother Shipton.

Other Insects

The insect world is too extensive to discuss but colourful insects found within the Green Belt include the Golden-ringed Dragonfly, Large Red Damselfly, Violet Oil Beetle and Tiger Beetle.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly

Golden-ringed Dragonfly

No wildlife description of our Green Belt would be complete without mentioning the midges! They live by sucking the blood of animals, birds . . . and humans. They inject saliva into the bite in order to thin the blood and then they suck it, with resulting irritation. Most midges are non-biting, but that’s little comfort when you encounter those that do. Midge larvae can live in very small amounts of water, such as in rotting plants.
Dangers to our heritage

We have this diversity and beauty largely thanks to the avoidance of industrialisation in Helensburgh. So much of Britain has been spoiled by intensive farming, urban sprawl and industrial carelessness. Even here there are threats. Although the Duchess Wood is a Local Nature Reserve and Ardmore Point and the mud flats on either side are Sites of Special Scientific Interest, other important sites are less protected. For instance, the ecologically important Blackhill Mire, between the Luss Road and the Golf Course, and the skating pond area could easily be harmed. Authorities in Britain do seem to be recognising their obligations to protect, especially in urban fringe land. We were pleased to see Argyll and Bute Council’s commitment to environmental protection in its Corporate Strategy in which the Council undertakes to be ‘environmentally responsible’. We trust that the new Local Plan will seek to enhance and to protect our Green Belt. Damage done cannot be undone.

Where to find out more:

‘Butterflies of South West Scotland’ by Butterfly Conservation Scotland whose main author was Keith Futter (2006).
‘A Habitat Survey of Helensburgh and Ardmore Point’ by Keith Futter Scottish Wildlife Trust (1991).

Photos by Keith Futter, unless otherwise stated.