Kilsture Forest Citizen Science Project

A quick history of Kilsture Forest Community Group (KFCG)

In 2018 when Kilsture Forest, a 204 hectare even-aged mixed woodland on the Machars Peninsula, was put up for sale by Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) a group of local people came together as Kilsture Forest Community Group (KFCG) to keep the forest from passing into private hands. At first it was assumed we would have to buy the forest ourselves, but an alternative option emerged, that the community could become co-custodians of the forest with FLS. In 2020 the campaign group morphed into a charity with a board of trustees with the primary aim to promote the well-being and sustainability of the biodiversity of Kilsture Forest. We entered into a Volunteer Agreement with FLS allowing us to take over path maintenance in Kilsture – I’m sure many of you who visit the forest will have enjoyed the result of their hard work. There is lots to look forward to in 2024. The scope of the volunteer work is set to expand to a far wider variety of activity in the New Year, and FLS is currently supporting us to move up the community involvement ladder to agree a Memorandum of Understanding with them, giving us a much greater say in the management of the forest.

Why the Citizen Science programme?

FLS is planning a significant programme of thinning and felling in 2028 to maintain the economic viability of the forest, taking us into the heart of contemporary debates about different approaches to woodland management.  The three main aims of the programme are: to record the wildlife of the forest, understand its economic status, and to begin to identify different woodland management options that best combine community and FLS priorities.  With the help of citizen scientists, we will gather as much information as possible over the next four years, about the wildlife in the forest, so that when it comes to thinning, FLS will have much more detailed data than would otherwise have been available about what needs to be protected. This will include understanding the potential impact of timber extraction on the function of underground mycorrhizal networks, which will be explored in the next phase of the programme.

What we’ve done so far

Over the Summer and early Autumn, we have hosted a series of training sessions: an introduction to recording, detecting bats and identifying fungi, all led by Peter Norman and Malcolm Haddow from SWSEIC (South West Scotland Environmental Information Centre), a dawn chorus walk with our local RSPB ranger and a family session with SWSEIC and the Galloway and South Ayrshire Biosphere. Morag Paterson ran a Chromatography workshop introducing a small group of people to this fascinating technique to analyse soil, using samples collected from the forest. Around 100 people have attended the events in total and SWSEIC has received an upsurge in recordings coming out of Kilsture Forest as a result, mostly via iNaturalist, an app which is an easy way to identify and record wildlife on your phone.

Outstanding Citizen Scientist!

There is one person who deserves special mention here. Out of the 196 observations submitted to the Kilsture Forest Project on iNaturalist at the time of writing, a spectacular 109 of them came from one person – Frances Ross (who goes by the handle umbrasumus on the app). Frances lives close to the forest and walks her dog there several times a week, submitting one or two records per walk. She is particularly interested in moths and butterflies, and at this time of year fungi. Regular visitors to the forest and dog walkers make great citizen scientists because they are probably already taking notice of the changes in the forest throughout the year and, as Frances says, “anyone who is interested in wildlife and takes photos when they are out walking is already doing it”. The only difference is that, to contribute to the citizen science project, you share your image, either via iNaturalist, or sending it in to SWSEIC who will accept records in any format – follow this link to find out more.

Recording the ecosystem as a whole

Many people, myself included till recently, think that finding a rare species is the holy grail of citizen science – the Crested Newt Effect – because that is what makes a site significant and delivers a ring of protection around a large area of habitat. Although we might still find a Crested Newt in the under-explored wetlands in the forest, it is recording the ecosystem of the forest as a whole that is of the greatest value. Unlike a monoculture plantation, Kilsture, with its mix of tree species, is a constantly changing environment and as Peter says new species, which may not necessarily be rare, will be arriving all the time, which is why every record has its value, not just the headline grabbers.

Rare species tell their story

However, it is worth mentioning that some rare finds have been recorded since the project began.  Malcolm was excited to find a Four-spotted Footman moth and a Pale Tussock caterpillar. “Moths are great bio-indicators because they are sensitive to changes in habitat, impact of chemicals, land use. Having a large abundance and number of species indicates that the ecosystem is functioning well.” The Newton Stewart Bat Group monitored the bat boxes in the forest over the summer finding that they were being very well used in general, as evidenced by “an astonishing amount of droppings” and found one Leisler’s Bat which is significant because it is a rare species in Scotland with the population being largely restricted to the southwest.

Ancient woodland?

Although Kilsture is in the main around 100 years old, Frances thinks she may have come across some much older trees in the middle of the forest.  Inspired by the book ‘Lost Rainforests of Britain’ by Guy Shrubsole, she went out looking for vestiges of rainforest in one of the wet areas of Kilsture. She saw a small stand of tall spindly oaks by a burn that “just felt old” and then spotted Polypody ferns growing on them which is often an indicator of advanced age in trees. “Once I spotted one tree with [the ferns] I started seeing many others”. Possibly they escaped the clear fell of the 1930s because the land was too soggy. She is going to record the trees on Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory, a major nationwide Citizen Science project, and if her records are verified, they will be included in the inventory.

Building our team of recorders

There are four more years before the felling and thinning in Kilsture is planned to take place, and the citizen science programme will run till then and hopefully beyond, producing an ever more detailed understanding of the forest. We don’t need huge numbers of people to get involved in the recording process, but we would like a few more people who, like Frances, visit regularly, to keep their eyes open for the first snowdrop, an unfamiliar plant, or animal tracks and to share their observation. The records don’t disappear into cyberspace or get lost in the annals of time.  They go straight to SWSEIC who welcome the records coming in, improving their data from a part of the region that is relatively under-recorded: “each record is valuable, and each is being used to add to our understanding.”

With thanks to Future Woodlands, Galloway and South Ayrshire Biosphere, SWSEIC for their support of the Citizen Science Project
Kilsture Forest is a Registered Charity: SC050634

If you would like more information about the Citizen Science programme or volunteering in the forest, please contact

Website by Red Paint

SUP is registered in Scotland as a company limited by guarantee with charitable status. Registered address: The Southern Uplands Partnership, Studio 2, Lindean Mill, Galashiels, TD1 3PE. Company No. SC200827 / Charity No. SCO29475

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