Category Archives: Land management

GROW Observatory: citizen science in action


I have just been appointed the new Programme Director of the GROW Observatory (GROW) and I am delighted to be working with such an exciting project. The GROW Observatory, an EU Horizon 2020 project, is coordinated from Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art and Design at University of Dundee. Working with 18 partner organisations from 10 countries across the Europe, the project is an innovative approach to creating a community of citizen growers, gardeners, small scale farmers, scientists and policy makers, all working together to learn from each other, provide growing and policy advice and contribute data on local soil conditions, to help validate climate change models generated by satellite.

The project vision is to support and build smart and sustainable custodianship of the land and soil across Europe and to provide an answer to the long standing challenge for space science, which is the need to validate climate change models with soil moisture detection on the ground. These data and this knowledge will in turn also be used to inform policy decisions on land use, soil management and climate change.

GROW will empower citizen growers, gardeners and small scale farmers to  understand better their environment and their impact on land and soil and to use that knowledge to address land degradation and habitat loss and fragmentation. To achieve this, GROW will deploy low cost sensing technology to gather data on key soil variables, collated via mobile phones and tablets, and large scale, world leading technology, including satellites. Growers will be empowered and encouraged to join a Europe wide network through the GROW advice service, that they will help to build by producing data and information on growing and soil management.


GROW is a wide ranging and varied partnership that is working with digital communities, environmental scientists, growers, gardeners and citizens interested in the environment.

You can help the partnership take its first steps by filling in our online Growers survey:

Find out more here: and on twitter @growobservatory


What is a national ecological network anyway?

There is  a lot of talk about natural capital and ecosystem services at the moment. One of the ways of protecting our capital and services is establishing a national ecological network. So what is that?

A National Ecological Network (NEN) consists of robust and healthy ecosystems, capable of sustaining the full range of ecosystem services upon which Scotland depends and which are vital for Scotland’s sustainable development.
A well planned NEN built on sound ecological principles protects ecosystems and their services through the plants and fungi that are the basis of all ecosystems. This is the mechanism that can ensure that local development management takes place within a sustainable national context.

IPA Sunart eg
While a NEN can only be effective if delivered at a national scale, aiming to re-connect Scotland’s fragmented ecosystems across mainland Scotland and its islands, its delivery must be planned at a relevant scale locally. This provides a national green infrastructure, complementing the built infrastructure projects of national planning frameworks.
Designing an effective NEN, however,  requires robust understanding and modelling of the elements that support ecosystem services. These services include resistance to disease, pollination, water regulation and soil fertility for example. For these services to continue to be available to people, they require robust and diverse ecosystems, founded upon self sustaining and genetically diverse species populations. These populations and the habitats they comprise are an essential consideration in proposals for development throughout the country if we are to retain the ecosystem services we all rely on.
This approach is encapsulated by the Important Plant Areas (IPA) initiative, which meets targets 4 and 5 in the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), to which the UK and Scottish governments are committed through the Convention on Biological Diversity, and provides an ecological coherent basis for a green infrastructure.
Delivery of IPAs in Scotland has to date focussed on their identification and management advice, which is now being effectively rolled out, across the West Coast IPA and North Coast IPA. A funding bid is in place to secure parallel advances in the Cairngorms IPAs. However, Scotland, as a whole, is at a stage where the detail of how built development can adversely affect ecosystem functionality needs to be addressed within a national context. This could be part of the recently updated Scottish Land Use Strategy and the Climate Change Adaptation Framework, both of which look to an integrated approach for development and management in a changing and uncertain climate.
This national ecological network approach achieves 3 objectives:
1. Improving the quality and resilience of Scotland’s natural environment,
2. enabling species and habitats to adapt to climate change by linking fragmented ecosystems together and providing means for species to move from site to site
3. maintaining and protecting ecosystem services in the future.
It also provides the context for the development of effective green infrastructure in the long term.

Scotland’s international reputation for a high quality environment, itself providing a market for skills development and job creation across Scotland, will only be maintained through creating this network. We need to start to implement it across the country using the established models already in place if we are to gain from it.

Read more here:

Scotland’s Important Plant Areas (2015) Plantlife.

Scotland’s superfood weeds: using them at home & on the farm.

Following on from the report in the Scotsman on the superfood benefits of corn gromwell –

Plantlife Scotland has put together a top 6 list of native plants, sometimes called weeds, that similarly provide high levels of key vitamins and minerals. These 6 plants all contain high levels of calcium, potassium, with magnesium, sodium and phosphorus, compared to perennial rye grass . Retaining these plants in species rich grasslands increases the availability of these minerals to grazing animals and helps diversify diets.

Some of these plants are superfoods for humans too . For example, nettles contain high levels of iron, calcium, potassium and manganese as well as vitamins a and c and beta-carotene. Traditionally made into soup, nettles can also be made into beer or eaten as greens or drunk as tea. And chickweed is high in magnesium, phosphorus, copper, vitamins A, C, B6, B12 and D.  Maybe we’re all missing something here: we have a superfood larder on our doorstep!


Dandelion: Taraxacum officinale
High in calcium and copper, compared to perennial rye grass. Used medicinally in the past and still used today as a diuretic, and as a tonic. It grows in a wide range of habitats including grassland and cultivated ground.

Common or stinging nettle: Urtica diocia
High in phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and copper, compared to perennial rye grass. Nettles contain many vitamins and minerals and are easily digested and have been used widely in the past to make soup, tea, beer or as greens. What’s more, cloth spun from nettle fibre was still being produced in Scotland into the late 18th century and a range of yellow to green-grey dyes were extracted. It was one of Scotland’s most useful plants. It grows in all habitats wherever the soil is rich in nitrogen.

Spear thistle
Spear thistle

Spear thistle: Cirsium vulgare
High in calcium compared to perennial rye grass. It grows in grassy and disturbed habitats.


Yarrow: Achillea millefolium
High in potassium and calcium compared to perennial rye grass. Used extensively in the past as a medicinal plant for humans and animals. It was used to treat sheep scab on the farm. And in the home, it was used to treat consumption, wounds, stomach complaints, cuts and bruises. The tea was drunk to combat melancholy. It was also used to make beer. It grows in grassy habitats.

Chickweed: Stellaria major

High in phosphorus, potassium, and sodium. In the past this plant had many medicinal uses and used for example to treat rashes and rheumatism, constipation and coughs and insomnia. It grows on bare patches in cultivated land on rich soils. Often a garden weed.

Creeping thistle: Cirsium arvense
High in phosphorus, potassium and calcium, compared to perennial rye grass. It grows in grassy habitats.

Further reading:

SRUC technical note TN643 (October 2014): Weed management in grassland.
Tess Darwin (2008) The Scots herbal. Birlinn.