Craigmillar Castle Park is a large area of land to the west of the built up area of Craigmillar and is owned by the City of Edinburgh Council. The land (including Hawkhill Wood) was recognised as an 'Urban Wildlife Site' by the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) in August 2000. This was because of the park's size, potential for new habitat creation or improvement of what's already there, and its importance as a local area for recreation and education. Unfortunately, this status is not recognised outside SWT and therefore doesn't legally protect the area. However, the fact that Craigmillar Castle Park is officially recognised to be a site of local importance for wildlife by one of Scotland's important conservation organisations is reassuring.
At the top of the hill, on
which Craigmillar Castle Park is situated, sits
the prominent landmark of Craigmillar Castle. You can see why it was built here,
because the views all round from this spot are never-ending. This would have
been useful for
defence purposes. This majestic
Castle was once a favoured residence of Mary Queen of Scots. She brought her own
maids with her whenever she came to stay here, and they stayed in the
cottages nearby. Because of Scotland's association with France, through the Auld
Alliance, many of these maidservants were French. This is why the area that they
stayed in was named Little France. It is still called this today - only it is
now known for being the site of the massive new Infirmary.
From the castle, if you walk down the hill towards Arthur's Seat and parallel to Craigmillar Castle Road, you'll come to a band of trees with a gap in it. Walk through the gap, and turn left onto the gravel path. This path was built by local trainees.
From here, and through the rest of the park, you'll see that there are hundreds and hundreds of young trees that have been planted fairly recently. This whole area was the site of a world record-breaking attempt, organised through the Craigmillar Urban Forest Project. The event was the Edinburgh Plantathon, and was held in 1997. People from all over Scotland came to plant trees in an attempt to set a new World Record for tree planting by volunteers in three days. 39,650 trees were planted altogether. The World Record wasn’t broken, but I think a new British record was set, and obviously the benefits of this event will be long-lasting.
Craigmillar Castle Park
- showing Plantathon trees in foreground
As you walk along here, watch out for voles in the long grass around the young trees. If you look carefully, you will see smoothed down tunnels in the grass, made by the voles as they run along. Try following their runs to see if you can spot one! You can also see vole holes in clumps of long grass. The tree guards around the newly planted trees help to protect against vole damage. As rodents, voles have very long front teeth (incisors), which grow continually to keep up with their gnawing habits. This means that voles have to gnaw things to wear their teeth down and to sharpen them. Tree bark is the perfect gnawing material. Voles generally gnaw off the bark and eat the sappy, nutritious layer just under the bark (cambium). In winter, if there's not much other food around, they'll eat the bark too. If they gnaw off all the bark in a ring around the trunk ('ring-barking') the tree will die. This is why the tree guards are important. They also protect against rabbit gnawing.
If they are Buzzards - they will be the first nesting pair in the city boundary for years! How exciting! See if you can spot them over the grassland and try to identify them. Remember to take binoculars if you have them. If the birds are not around when you visit, other signs to look out for include long feathers on the ground, footprints in the snow in winter (generally in fields, as Buzzards feed on worms in winter), and, of course, pellets.
Pellets consist of food that birds cannot digest that are coughed up in compact balls. They can be made of fur, feathers, hard insect casings (chitin), bones, pieces of shell, plant material, etc. - depending on what the bird eats. Different birds produce different sized and shaped pellets also. If we examine the pellets we find, these differences allow us to work out which animal has been in a place. This might sound disgusting to some, but it's actually really interesting, and a bit like detective work! If the pellets around here contain wee bones and skulls, they will be from owls, crows or magpies. Birds of prey, like Buzzards, can digest bones, so their pellets contain parts of bone or no bones at all. Buzzard pellets are usually 6-7cm long and about 3cm thick and cylindrical, with either blunt or pointed ends. They are grey and mainly consist of matted fur from small rodents. They can be found under tall trees and near fence posts in fields.
7-Spot Ladybird on Larch tree
You can also look out for much tinier animals on the young trees. Ladybirds are small, round beetles, with short legs. They are a gardener's friend as they mostly eat pesky aphids, but few animals eat them, as their colours warn that they don't taste good! Did you know that there are many kinds of ladybird - all with different colours and numbers of spots? Some are red with black spots, others are red with yellow spots and some are black with yellow spots. The 7-spot ladybird (above) is very common. See if you can find ladybirds on the trees here - and count their spots!
If you keep walking along the path, past the line of trees on your right-hand side, you'll see that the path either goes up the hill, or round the flat part of Craigmillar Castle Park. If you keep going through the flat areas, you'll pass many different kinds of older trees, and many more acres of Plantathon planting. The gravel path eventually turns into more of a narrow track, and you can come off it at the exit to the dump and recycling centre, onto the road. If you keep following the track round, towards the tower blocks, you'll come out at Niddrie Mains Road.
If you don't go on towards the flat areas, but veer to the left and go up the hill, you'll come to a fork in the path. Take the right-hand fork, which will bring you to a small, enclosed area of tree-planting, surrounded by Buddleia bushes.
Buddleia Buddleja davidii is a species of garden plant, which has ‘escaped’ into the wild. (Like Giant Hogweed, Rhododendron and the others, but this doesn't take over.) It originally comes from China, and in summer it has spikes of pink or purple flowers that smell great and are very attractive to butterflies and bees. In particular, the Small Tortoiseshell butterfly is a Buddleia fan, but Stinging Nettles have to be nearby, for the caterpillars to feed on.
There are also many Teasel plants here, scattered amongst the small trees. Teasel is another
important wildlife plant. It has a rosette of knobbly, prickly leaves on
the ground, which produces flowers in its second year of
flowering stems can reach 2m in height and they have a side
shoot, which forms a well for rainwater to collect in. Small birds often
from this well in late spring.
Further along the path, you'll pass a bushy Grey Willow on your left. In spring, this will be full of silvery grey catkins.
Next up, just in front of the band of Alder and Poplar trees, you may find a lot of broken snail shells. This is the feeding site of a Song Thrush. They cannot break the shells themselves, so they use a stone, fallen branch or tree stump to hit the snails against. This feeding site is known as the bird's 'anvil' - because it serves a similar purpose to a blacksmith's anvil.
From here, you can either carry on up the path, through the fence, into the field and left, back towards the castle, or you can follow the path round to the right, into the woodland.
If you do go into the woodland, you must watch your footing, as there are many steep rock faces that appear from nowhere and drop down several metres. You must also be careful of dangerous trees. This sounds silly, but there are many trees in here that have been damaged by strong winds, and have hanging branches, or are likely to fall if pushed or pulled. It's not all bad, though - there are areas of this wood that are covered in bluebells in the spring, and there are many different kinds of trees in here. Come back to the spot where you entered in order to cross the fields and head back up the hill to the castle.
Go explore for yourself!