I bundled my gear into the back of the van on a glorious summer’s morning in the middle of May. The sun was out with a vengeance as I revved the engine into life before setting off through the streets of Edinburgh to collect my seagrass companion to commence our road trip to the west. As we chugged along the roads of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, we were mesmerised by the natural beauty of the lochs and mountains which envelop that part of Scotland. Loch Craignish was no different, the brilliance and profound beauty left us speechless. We carefully pulled into a stonewalled courtyard, which belonged to a renovated livestock barn that was to be our home for the next week. Issy - a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, who we were there to assist - followed shortly, she arrived.
That evening as we sat around the table after polishing off what was to be the first of many meals prepared by chef de partie Lyle, we discussed our strategy for the week and what Issy wanted to achieve before Marie and I headed back to the city.
Day two was used for reconnaissance, we explored one of the two potential sites that Issy was interested to use for her study. We ungracefully pulled our wetsuits on before we swam out to meet the seagrass meadow. Disregarding the issues I had with my newly bought mask, the swim was incredible, to finally swim amongst the towering blades of eelgrass (Zostera marina) was a significant moment. Dispersed around the main meadow were hessian bags containing seagrass seeds that were deposited the year before and on the surface of the water were suspended cages accommodating juvenile oysters. Both were associated with the restoration activities performed by a community-led charity called Seawilding, a group who are committed to the restoration of marine habitats within Loch Craignish.
In 2020, Seawilding was awarded a grant by the National Lottery Heritage Fund to grow up to 1 million juvenile native oysters within Loch Craignish, in order to restock their natural beds. Latterly, they have taken to seagrass restoration, funded by NatureScot and The Crown Estate.
Seawilding has so far planted ¼ of a hectare of seagrass and this year plans to plant a further ½ hectare, with the intention to assist the natural reseeding process of seagrass within the small, isolated and fragmented seagrass meadows found in Loch Craignish. Both oysters and seagrass have witnessed sharp declines around Scotland and within Loch Craignish, which has led Seawilding to intervene and try to actively restore these habitats in order to build resilient and healthy habitats capable of withstanding the test of time.
Seawilding are trailblazers within the community-led restoration field here in Scotland, as they were the first community organisation to take to active restoration of seagrass. The hessian bags that we saw during our snorkel are one of many methods that are used in seagrass restoration. The use of hessian bags for seagrass restoration was first pioneered by Project Seagrass in their restorative efforts down in Wales. Hessian bags loaded with viable seeds and sand are placed on the seabed, with the hessian bags set to provide the seeds and newly germinated shoots protection from hungry crabs and tidal influences. This is one method that we endeavour to employ here in the Forth, so keep tuned to here of our progress
After some deliberation it was decided, we would consolidate our efforts on the meadow Issy initially intended to study, this decision would prove to be vital going forward, as the site was located close to the boat house used by Seawilding, which offered us shelter from the elements between sessions in the water. The comfort provided by the boat house was much appreciated, as the weather conditions quickly deteriorated. The idyllic conditions we arrived with were gone in a flash, the wind speeds built up over the ensuing days, causing havoc to our plans.
On Monday morning instead of clambering back into our sodden wetsuits, we joined Phillip - a wildlife photographer by trade who runs his own company “Loch Visions” but who also works with Seawilind – for a morning of otter watching. Issy was keen to learn about the connections between higher trophic species (animals higher up the food chain) with seagrass meadows. We were very fortunate as within 10 minutes from starting out, we stumbled upon an otter happily feeding mere meters from the coast. We had a fantastic view of this incredible mammal going about its usual activities, it was remarkable to know how successful they are in their fishing attempts.
That evening we returned to the seagrass meadow to begin setting Issy’s buoys, battling the fierce winds and sheets of rain we slowly managed to put the buoys in place, so to demark the study and control sites. Over the following days under improving weather conditions, we were able to take sediment core samples, collect seagrass blades to assess for epiphytes (algal growth) and finally we conducted a couple bird surveys. In the evenings we would sift through our sediment samples to search for any infaunal organisms (organisms that live in the marine sediment), during those long days the pungent smell of the anoxic sediment ensured tired eyes remained alert. Our time assisting Issy quickly elapsed and it was time to return to reality, we left Loch Criagnish wiser and weather beaten. It was a brilliant learning experience and Loch Craignish is somewhere I definitely hope to return to.
Last week I had Sasha an undergraduate student from St-Andrews University joined me, she was here to undertake a week’s long internship to learn the ropes and see what a week working in conservation feels like. If you are interested in learning about her experience you can take a read her blog which is on the restoration page.