The Power of Insect Poop – Part 1: The Experiment


As part of my bachelor of honours degree in Environmental Science at Stirling University, I was able to conduct novel research in my own self-contained project and all in all I am truly happy with the results. Since I already knew that my academic future may lie somewhere at the intersect of agricultural productivity and nature conservation, an agroecological study was just the right choice for me. More specifically, I was investigating the potential of using insect poop or in more technical terms “insect faeces”, and its potential for increasing plant growth in spring onions, which can potentially also increase quality of life for subsistence farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa through higher plant yields. Furthermore there is a high potential to preserve or even increase ecosystem health through reduced pesticide and inorganic fertiliser inputs. My project was part of the bigger Ento-prise project, which looked at several facets of insect frass in a social and ecological context.

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To really be able to investigate the potential of insect frass, I also studied naturally decomposed compost, which originated from the same source material (banana, avocado and mango peels) as the insect frass. This allowed me to truly attribute my plant growth results to the processing techniques (insect larvae consumption or natural processing) rather than to the source material itself, which was not part of this study.


The difference between compost (left) and insect frass (right) is clearly visible. Pictures taken at same scale.

In order to allow for equal soil conditions in all my plant pots, I had to sieve the soil (2mm mesh), which I excavated from an unimproved (no fertiliser or other inputs added) grassland at Stirling Campus. However, due to the high moisture content of the soil, sieving became rather impossible and kept clogging my mesh, which then turned rather impenetrable. I thus ended up drying the soil first by spreading it into numerous trays with minimal soil depth and exposing it to room temperature. A rather tedious job but with great results!

The sieved soil was then mixed with the different inputs (compost, insect frass and NPK fertiliser) at different rates and placed into plant pots in which spring onion seeds were thereafter sown. I decided to grow the plants in a controlled environment by using climate chambers in which I could accurately control light intensity, humidity and temperature. With the unpredictable and often harsh weather in Scotland, this growth experiment would have been very difficult to implement outside and the controlled environment thus allowed me to create a climate that at least partially resembled conditions in Sub-Saharan African.


Climate Chambers allow to control environmental variables

Before I started growing my plants however, I undertook measurements of the soils to determine its quality, which is an important consideration since soil quality can also significantly impact upon plant growth. I achieved this by taking pH as well as Electrical Conductivity (EC) readings, which gave me a really good indication of the soil quality by using actually very simple instruments. In order to take accurate readings however, a careful methodology is highly important, which in my case included the mixing of a specific amount of soil with distilled water (distilled water does not affect the pH nor EC of the Soil). Subsequently probes were submerged into the soil-water solution and after a specific amount of time removed again.


Determining soil pH and EC

Another soil measurement I undertook was the determination of organic matter content in the soil, since it can also greatly affect plant growth. This, too, is a very simple method! You dry the soil in an oven at around 90 degrees overnight to ensure that no moisture is left in it, since moisture is not what you want to be weighing. Then you weigh the completely dry soil and leave it in a special oven at 450 degrees over night. This will basically burn all organic material, thus releasing the carbon into the air and consequently leaving you with only the mineral content. After you have weighed the mineral content of the soil, you can now determine, using the two established weights, the proportion of organic matter in the soil. Simple!


Weighing soil weight before burning the soil organic matter

Throughout the plant growth experiment, I also undertook a variety of measurements at regular intervals, most importantly plant height. I undertook these measurement in a very simple manner as well, by utilising calipers with which I measured the distance from the top of the soil substrate to the highest point of the plant. While this may not be the most representative measurement for plant growth, it nevertheless was easy to measure and provided me with a lot of data, which I could visually arrange easily to be viewed as a plant growth curve.


Using Calipers to measure plant height

After I had conducted all of the aforementioned measurements and my little spring onions had turned into very much harvestable adults, it was time to carefully excavate all plants from the soil to be able to weigh the root as well as the shoot content of all plants individually, since knowing the ratio of root and shoot weight is again a great indication for potential plant stresses, because many plants will develop more extensive root systems, if nutrient uptake becomes more difficult in the soil. However, while this all may sound very logical and straight forward, the actual separation of the individual plants in each pot was certainly not, since the roots of several plants had to be entangled first.


Plant roots in a massive knot

Finally, I had gathered all my necessary data, thus enabling me to move on to analyse and consequently visualise it in graphs and tables in order to see possible trends between my different inputs and plant growth.

Under African Skies – Part 1: Zambia


Ngonye Falls, Zambia

Realising that many years have passed since I lived in southern Africa, I am still astonished that many memories have remained as fresh as if they had just occurred last week. Often I dreamily think back of being awoken by a snorting hippopotamus or a troop of baboons raiding our bins and sometimes it can take me a couple of hours to find back from these dreams into reality again. Being aware of the substantial impact this continent has had on me I am finally attempting to put my experiences into words.

In 2013 I spend half a year in Zambia, Botswana and Namibia participating in the KAZA TFCA project. During that time I lived in Sioma (western Zambia) right at the Ngonye Falls, I joined the Wildlife Patrols at Mudumu National Park in the Caprivi Region of Namibia and I travelled almost the entire length of Namibia as well as helping out on local farms.


My first real task was to be accomplished at the Ngonye Falls National park in Zambia, where the thunder of the falls would be my closest companion for the next 6 weeks. There I spend my days living on the front porch of a small hut, cooking at the fire and leisurely strolling around the countryside. On behalf of the national park I established a Tree ID Guide for Tourists and also undertook various admin tasks.

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Often I would help the people of Sioma with their daily tasks, such as fishing, farming or foraging. I particularly enjoyed the early hours of the day, when the sun was just about to rise while we were bringing in the fish harvest from the previous night, which would often be so plentyful that it provided me with incredibly tasty fish as well.

While I was stocked with plenty of non-perishable foods, there was often a lack of fresh food, simply due to the absence of electricity and thus refrigeration. However, my occasional foraging strolls kept me well supplied with vital vitamins as well as sensory immersion for my taste buds. I didn’t expect a conventional bakery out here of course, but the nearest fresh bread supply was still several hours away (walking) and so I came up with what I though to be novel method of bread baking, only to realise months later that this method is in fact incredibly common throughout many parts of the world. It included lighting a fire below as well as on top of a Cast Iron or Dutch oven in order to create a reasonably well distributed heat in the interior of the pot, which is vital for baking bread thoroughly.  The results were indeed astonishingly tasty !


Strychnos spinos or Monkey Orange is a delicious fruit !

After I had decided to scrap my malaria provisions since I simply couldn’t bear the associated photo-sensitivity, I thereafter went for more extensie foraging strolls without the risk of incredibly painful sunburns even at minimal sun exposure. One day I ended up encountering a Monkey Orange tree in the Wild, which I had never seen nor even known about to that day. After my friend had introduced this inredible fruit to me and we had proceeded to the essential tasting component of this introduction I was sure and I still am to this day that the fruit may have been one of the tastiest I have eaten in my life.


One really interesting feature of most habitations in the area (including many self-contained compost toilets!) are the well raked buffer zones surrounding the tall fences of each property. These may be raked several times a week in fact and act as a warning systems and thus protection against animals and particularly snakes, as their tracks can be easily identified and the house evacuated until the snake has been either killed or scared away.

One of the activities I enjoyed most in Sioma was fishing, which would have certainly not  come to my mind if it wasn’t for George, a kind and helpful person who I met in Sioma one day and who was incredibly helpful throughout my stay in Zambia. With his advice I purchased a fishing rod just across the border in Namibia and thereafter spend many evenings along the riverbank enjoying the solitude whilst being on continuous lookout for approaching crocodiles, which, thanks to the rather rapid flow of water, was limited to only a few occasions.


Hippopotamus tracks

There is one moment I still remember clearly. I got up particularly early one morning only to discover these incredibly huge footprints that almost seemed to resemble some sort of humongous hand. Curiously I followed the tracks up from the river valley until they eventually led me to an extensive meadow where they would hit a fence line and then gradually return back to the river. Excited as I was I went on to report these newly made discoveries to my colleague rangers. The faces that were pulled after I gave them a rather detailed description of my newly made discovery were priceless and will certainly remain in my memory as another jewel of my experience in Africa. Naive as I was I had never even considered studying Hippo footprints to that day.


The wreck of a mokoro

Another memory, still very present in my mind, was in the presence of George as well as Phil, another incredibly helpful friend which I made in Sioma. While spending time by the riverbank, I was challenged to paddle a Mokoro (a boat carved out of a single wooden log) while standing up right, which I immediately accepted. After wobbling my way out onto the Zambezi for a wee bit, hesitantly attempting postures that could increase my balance, and eventually coming back again, I was subsequently told that this part of the river is particularly teeming with crocodiles, due to calm and murky conditions. With hindsight, I certainly agree that there properly aren’t many better ways motivating you to improve your paddling skills than having crocodiles lurking all around you.

Once it was time to leave Sioma, I made my way back to Sesheke in order to cross over to Namibia where my next conservation project would be waiting. However, I have kept wondering about the future of this magical place ever since, a place that in my opinion has had the privilege of still being reasonably isolated from western expansion. While in the past the only access to this area was maintained via a mucky single-laned bush track accessible mainly by 4×4, I witnessed first hand how massive Chinese working camps started to appear all over the landscape, eagerly building a new highway right into heart of Western Zambia. While the first impression could have easily fooled me to be a positive one, for example when thinking about “progress” and “development work”, I immediately came to realise that the potential consequences could also be disastrous. To give you an example: When hitchhiking into Sesheke, I would almost always be accompanied by fellow hitchhikers carrying a rather conspicuous cooling box, whose content I unfortunately was all too familiar with. Being able to witness bush meat expansion first hand has been truly frightening and I believe that a potential increase in bush meat markets as a result of highway expansion and quicker transportation routes, which is often required to keep the meat fresh, may show severely adverse impacts on local wildlife populations in the future. Moreover there is the sad irony that the local population owns in fact very few bicycles, let alone cars and will not nearly benefit as much from this road as for example logging trucks, which will probably become even more numerous over the years to come. Realising that this might have been the last time  I have seen Sioma as a sleepy wee village, where the noise of the wild is ubiquitous, makes this memory even more precious for me.

Hydroponics at UH Hilo in Hawaii


The university owned hydroponics greenhouse, full of tools and equipments that enabled students to set up hydroponic systems

Hydroponics, by definition, encompasses the growing of plants in a water substrate, containing no soil at all and instead is artifically supplemented with nutrients. Learning how to do exactly this was part of one of my modules while being at UH Hilo in Hawaii. Although I sometimes still struggle to find a relevant utilisation for this method that actually meets my personal sustainable standards (i.e. no inorganic phosphorus), I nevertheless appreciated the diverse experiences as well as all the fresh and pesticide free vegetables during my semester in Hawaii, which contributed to my personal culinary experience.


Before being sold at the market or given away privately, all produce received these labels with relevant information

Most knowledgeable were the weekly practical sessions that lasted between three and five hours. During the first weeks of the semester these were mainly concerned with work of a more  physical nature, such as cutting PVC pipes and finding the right fittings that would ultimately reduce the chance of leaking any of the precious fertiliser solution. Although this was a rather non-academical activity, it was nevertheless fun, practially relevant and really interesting!


As soon as the systems were set up, it was time to germinate all the seeds that we wanted to grow during this semester. Previously we had gathered in groups and decided together on a variety of heritage species with a total of four different varieties. This allowed us to evaluate the effect of hydroponical growing on different vegetable varieties and ensured varied diet for me as well 🙂


We also had to distinguish between plants that required most of the semester to mature, which were only planted once and those plants, which were restocked throughout the semester such as various lettuce, pak choi and kale varieties. This allowed, in a agricultural context,a continuous supply for customers, which was another key focus of this module. For example, lettuce has a growing cycle of about five weeks and replanting 20 heads every week guarantees a fresh supply of vegetables every single week throughout the semester (apart from the occasional disastrous student experiment, which might have ruined the weekly produce …)


Most of the weekly seminars were also used to discuss the different fertilizer solution and the appropriate application. Every vegetable, due to its different genetic nature, had certain pronounced growing periods, in which it needed more nutrients than usual. A purposefully induced lack of nutrients could also be used to force earlier fruiting in many varieties, however nutrients always had to be kept adequately high to avoid symptoms, such as tip burn in lettuce plants.


Tip Burn in lettuce is a typical symptom of persistent calcium deficiency

Choosing the right nutrient solution or fertiliser did not just depend on simple calculations of NPK (Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphorus) ratios, but also on the right method of application. It was highly important to apply calcium separately from any sulphates, as otherwise the formation of calcium sulphate or gypsum would have prevented the dissolution of these nutrient in water, which is essential for plants in order to allow uptake by roots. Consequently, most applied fertiliser is separated into these two major groups (see picture), which are applied at different stages.


Separate application of these fertilizer prevents the formation of gypsum

The last couple of weeks of my semester in Hilo turned out to be a true feast with ample of vegetables and fruits that could be harvested on an almost daily basis. It was great to see so many different plants mature during the semester, but also to learn about their individual traits, which were often strongly influenced by the hydroponical system. The glorious harvest, as can partially be seen in the pictures below, should be indication enough of how much I enjoyed this module. Where else does a student get a chance to be fed healthy food from a university module. This may even help to inspire the typical Scottish student diet, which can be rather disturbing…


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Living in Hawaii part 3: The culinary experience comes to an end

The sheer amount of foraging and cooking I undertook in Hawaii really deserves a third blog entry contributing to my culinary experience. Having spent a significant amount of time in Hawaii by now, I would like to emphasize again, that the dimensions of foraging I experienced can not even closely be compared to my Scottish foraging expeditions. A bag of hazelnuts, a backpack full of apples or even some sloes and wild garlic can truly get me excited. Here however, I can have a steady supply of 100+ avocados weekly as well as endless bananas. In fact, bananas are considered a weed here and occur especially within the wetter parts of eucalyptus plantations, with many being located just north of Hilo. They also tend to cluster along the roadsides as well as in drainage ditches and consequently there is always a bunch out there ready for you to harvest. As if that wouldn’t be enough, the Arboretum in Hilo, which hosts a vast range of tropical fruit trees, also offers all residents to pick fruit at no cost.

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In the arboretum, harvesting jabuticabas (Plinia cauliflora) in particular was a great experience. Firstly we had to register with the forestry and wildlife department that manages the arboretum in Hilo, which is well over 100 years old and was in fact founded with the intention of providing the people of Hilo with a vast range of fruits. Furthermore, an identification key is handed out to all visitors in order to help them identify the desired trees, which can then easily be verified since all trees are numbered with the numbers being mentioned in the key as well. Surprisingly,  Jabuticabas grow on the very stem of the tree, meaining they do not possess the typical fruiting branches that I am normally so familiar with. Indeed, this is another incredible reminder that nature may never stop fascinating me with the sheer endless forms of live that exist on this beautiful planet!

Another experiment, which in my opinion was definitely overdue, involved brewing kombucha. I was especially keen on doing this since self-brewed kombucha can help avoiding high sugar consumption, with high sugar amounts often being present in industrial kombucha. My own journey started on the terrace at home where I stumbled across an abandoned kombucha shelf, containing several jars intended for kombucha brewing. However many of these jars contained nothing more than dried up carcasses by the time I found them. I then checked all of the remaining kombucha cultures (that hadn’t dried up) for health and vitality and used the good ones to start my own batch. By increasing the fermentation period I also ensured that the sugar content was even further reduced while potentially increasing the the probiotic content as well as resulting in a stronger perceived potency of the drink, which is what I appreciate so much about this delicious drink.

But don’t let yourselves be fooled! This culinary experience is not all about delicious fruits, although there is indeed more than enough. We also have an uncontrollably high population of feral as well as domestic chickens in our garden. Chickens tend to  generally be forbidden in residential areas throughout Hawaii (Welcome to the 21st century!), which is mainly because they can be quite noisy. However, one day our garden had the privilege to become inhabited by a feral rooster and its 5 am crowing habit. Consequently we had to somehow find means to quiet this unappreciated guest in order to avoid having the police at our door. After some consideration, we were able to turn this into a very delicious win-win situation and after a quick and professional home slaughter, our guest was ready for the oven on the very same night. The chicken was delicious, but also had some distinct gamy character to it. It went especially well with our homemade Hawaiian Chilli Sauce, with the chillies also harvested from our garden.

Let’s talk about noni juice (Morinda citrifolia) and please trust me when I say that one cannot possibly image just how disgusting the taste truly is until having swallowed the very first zip. In my opinion the taste lies somewhere between rancid gorgonzola and stomach acid, with strong tendencies towards vomit, but apparently opinions can vary strongly here. However, it is also one of the most medicinal plants in the world, it survives in bare volcanic rocks with barely any soil substrates and it does not mind being irrigated with salt water. Nevermind the taste, which certainly requires getting used to, I really do love this fruit! While being in Hawaii, I have had the privilege to already be cured several times from an approaching cold. But to get to practical matters: Juicing nonis is surprisingly simple. In fact, given several weeks Nonis will automatically start exuding their own juice, which can then easily be collected. All that is required is very hygienic conditions to avoid formation of mould and a lot of patience. All in all, plenty of these fruits can generally be found when driving along coastal roads on most pacific islands. Considering that, several month later I ended up paying a whole 23 Euro for just a single liter in Germany, it must have been a true privilege that I had so many Nonis and their juice at my disposal.

Living in Hawaii part 2: The Culinary Journey continues

For me, Hawaii is really all about food. The abundance of those foods which are normally not available to us in Europe opens up a completely new field of culinary experimentation. In fact, more than I have ever dared to try before, which is fantastic! Furthermore a community meal, scheduled twice per week, has helped me to enjoy exotic food creations by others as well as my own.

Most meals however, did not need a recipe to be tasty, such as a beautiful desert which I prepared for us one day at a community dinner. Previously, I had asked the security officers on campus, whether the foraging of wild fruits would be allowed and was told that students are actually even encouraged to harvest fruits on campus, since this is their campus after all. Consequently, plenty of Polynesian breadfruits (Artocarpus altilis) were harvested at full ripeness and afterwards quickly processed to avoid spoilage. The beautiful thing about breadfruit is that, once mashed and fried, it really tastes like apple pancakes and it does so without neither adding sugar nor flour. Even better: Topped with star fruit slices and local eucalyptus honey!


Shared meals in our community are often inspiring and resourceful, combining the numerous exotic cooking skills coming from people with totally different backgrounds. Also, they are a lot of fun! After all, this is one of the very reasons, that has made me dedicate my life to sustainable food production: To enjoy this very moment!


Apart from cooked meals, I have furthermore developed my own personal smoothie recipes that tend to vary with the seasonal availability of fruits on the island. Smoothies are easy to make, convenient to drink (eat?) and don’t cost too much energy digesting, which means they can easily be consumed before sports or other activities. If I can not find certain fruits in the wild, I am sure to find them at the Hilo Farmers market, which is open every single day, including Sundays. In the picture below, my smoothie consisted of flax seeds, oats, spirulina, kale, avocado, passion fruit, papaya, banana, carrots, turmeric and ginger, which may sounds like a bit of an overkill, but was surprisingly healthy and also made efficient use of the abundance of fruits.


The possible combinations of ingredients in smoothies are sheer endless and, for example by simply adding coconut, completely new dimensions can be achieved in the art of smoothie-making. Furthermore, coconuts could not be more abundant on this island with many people giving them away for free. Tip: It’s best, unlike shown in the picture, to remove the woody husk around the flesh, as this avoids itchy feelings in your throat while drinking.


Another amazing dish that is literally starting to become a stable meal in my diet is guacamole. While doing some landscaping work, my flat mate and I came across an abandoned yet huge avocado tree and thus decided to regularly harvest it from there on. In this season it will hopefully supply us with around 600+ avocados, of which each one has about twice the size of the usual European supermarket avocado. Harvesting avocados however, is no easy job as each one has to be picked individually with a telescope picker, which can be up to 6 metres long and has a basket attached to the end. Over time, this will certainly help you to work out your upper body!


Finally I thought it was worthwhile sharing with you that even in Hawaii I have continued baking bread. I was especially encouraged to do so by the ridiculously high prices for bread, even though it often simply tastes dreadful. To give you some sort of idea of how expensive bread is: A simple white loaf of bread will start at around $4 and prices can easily go up into double-digit numbers, which is also where wholegrain organic sourdough bread has its home. Right now, a self-baked organic wholegrain loaf costs me just under a dollar, which sounds much more agreeable with me.


Living in Hawaii part 1: Culinary Plant Life



Finally I have arrived in Hilo, a town with around 40,000 inhabitants located on the Big Island or the island of Hawai’i. I will be studying environmental and ecologcial sciences at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo for the next 6 month as well as living in a small permaculture community that is closely associated with the vibrant student community in town.


Phelsuma laticauda or Gold Dust Day Gecko, which is one of many species that was introduced in recent times and now coins the general picture of this island.

As part of this Permaculture Community I have access to and responsibility over an extensive garden, which is mainly composed of perennials that continuously yield the most delicious foods perfect for a healthy diet. For example, it has become my daily routine to enjoy several passion fruits a day in my daily breakfast smoothie, as the big vines in our garden can drop on average 5-10 fruits a day. This is plenty, especially when considering that the absence of pronounced seasons (tropics) means fruit yield overall is on average persistent throughout the year.

Of course, bananas are my favourite and the amount of bananas that grow here is astonishing. Most interestingly, bananas are considered to be berries and hence the rather common opinion around here that there is a lack of tasty berries in the tropics should be rethought! What really impresses me however, is the fact that bananas are considered a weed here and many people never even get around to harvesting them, which is a lucrative concept if one makes an effort and is hence rewarded with beautiful banana smoothies.


banana harvest with ned 2

A machete is used to fell the banana stalk (Musa acuminata x Musa balbisana), which although it can be several metres tall, is considered a herb and certainly the biggest herb I know. Although banana plants can be thick and strong, their main component is water, which makes it possible to use machetes rather than axes.

















Another big life saver for me has been turmeric, as I had to fight a cold for the first week of my arrival. This cold probably is a result of the vog (volcanic smog) levels in Hilo, which have been especially high in recent times with vog being carried over by the wind from the adjacent active volcano if weather conditions permit it.

Last week we harvested two full buckets of turmeric, which in my opionion is an incredible amount and I think most will end up on our little “Free Food Stall” at the side of the road, where people not only take food but have also started to leave food behind, such as a box of oranges which was left the other day. My tip: Turmeric in a smoothie does not only look amazing but it is also incredibly healthy and certainly helped me to recover quickly from my cold.



A lot of other edible greens can be found in our garden as well, such as edible hibiscus or Tongan Spinach (Abelmoschus Manihot) with beautifully tasty leaves, but also Brazilian Spinach (Alternanthera sissoo), which has invaded most of the garden making a beautiful ground cover as well as ensuring a life long supply of “spinach”. Unfortunately though, there is one down side to it: Angiostrongylus cantonensis or simply rat lung worm disease. This is a parasitic nematode that can cause severe brain damage once he is in your system and can basically be found anywhere rats live, which is literally most of the island if not all of it! Furthermore, slugs consuming rat faeces are known to spread this parasite by leaving behind slime residue over leaf surfaces of most plants with the slime often being infected with these parasites. Essentially, this means that any non-shelled fruit or plant needs a minimum of 2 minutes of boiling to ensure safe consumption. How inconvenient!


And then, of course, there are the more obvious plants that grow so numerous here. Papaya is one of them and although I did not get around to count all the papaya plants in our garden yet, I can ensure you there are several, which in my humble opinion is just great! Also, several pineapples are kindly accommodated by us in the garden and one, which was incredibly delicious, already had the pleasure to be consumed by us. Tip: Cut of top of pineapple to be replanted: Very simple!



Another bonus was the recent honey harvest in which I participated. The resulting honey has done an incredible job so far to sweeten up my daily turmeric and ginger tea during my recovery period. Together with bees, there is really a lot of variety in this beautiful garden and I am excited to see it change throughout the next 6 months in which I will have the privilege to live here. So many things which I simply took for granted back in Europe, for example Basil Tulsi, grow here in our garden and have since then taught me so much more about not only this but also other plants that I have been using as tea substitutes for several years without ever really reading up on them.


Fresh raw honey is beautiful!

After all, I can only conclude that if a place like paradise (at least in terms of food) may exist, it must come pretty close to this place. Continuous nutritious food supply throughout the year with minimal work load due to the perennial nature, turn this place into a lush and bountiful home that even enables me to eat tropical fruits without having to worry about food miles.


Our recent banana harvest. I really enjoy foraging here and as you can imagine the yields are slightly different from Scotland 😉


Banana herb in our garden being more than ready to be harvested.

Plant & Wildlife in the Flowcountry

Cathy beach

The Flow Country in the North of Scotland not only has beautiful and vast blanket bogs to offer but also an astonishing flora and fauna. As well as working on my research project, I went out to discover the local environment. I was particularly impressed by the calcium rich habitats and the resulting diversity of plant life, that existed around several beaches I encountered in the area.

lesser spotted heath orchid

Orchids like this spotted orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii, can be found throughout the bog and are stunningly beautiful!

I was fortunate enough to experience one of the Scottish Puffin Colonies. Considering the recent decline in Puffin populations, this was an even more important and inspiring encounter for me.

puffin 7


Veronica chamaedrys 2

Germander speedwell (veronica chamaedrys), one of  plants that occurs throughout Scotland, looked exceptionally beautiful due to the composition with its companion plants on this calcium rich soil at one of the beaches in the Sutherland.

And, of course, many more encounters have enlightened me 🙂

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On yurt making: The places starting a sourdough bakery will take you

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Yurt making and sourdough bakery? A strange combination indeed, but it is exactly these unpredictable and spontaneous coincidences that make life such a great roller-coaster of an adventure. So what is this about a sourdough bakery and how on Earth does it tie in with yurt making? Let me give you a little bit of background info and hopefully you’re a bit less clueless about what is happening by the end of this post.

To get to the adventure part and the whole point of this article: Yurt Making! A few weeks ago, Théo and I participated in an event for young entrepreneurs (as obnoxious as that sounds) during the Stirling business week where we listened to a few people who have started their own businesses and also gave a little talk about our bakery project. First of the presentations was Poporopo, the first gourmet popcorn company in Scotland started…

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Research in the Flow country – Part 1: Lab work

The Beautiful Flow Country

The Beautiful Flow Country

What is it about ?

During my first 2 years at Uni, theoretical knowledge became all too familiar and I was ready to actually get out and take matters into my own hands. Studying environmental sciences, I always had a keen interest on understanding ecosystems as a whole, as for me this used to be the missing link between understanding small processes (such as litter fall) and huge ones like Climate Change.

Having been accepted for a student scholarship at the University of Stirling, as well as having received a student grant by the Botanical Society of Scotland,  I was finally able to help out with a PhD project that investigated the climate impacts caused by restoring blanket peat bog from commercial forestry in Scotland’s Flow Country. This PhD is led by Renée Hermans and supervised by Jens-Arne Subke.

Lab Work

In order to compare different environments such as forests and bogs, Gas fluxes/movements are measured in the local soil. We had plenty of soil sample replicates, as soils tend to have a mind of their own, so making sure there are enough enables us to still get reliable results. Additionally, these samples had to be measured several times at different water table heights.

Soil incubator: Home of the Soil Samples

Soil incubator: Home of the Soil Samples

But to really get a bigger picture, soil is only one aspect of many, that will lead to an understanding of these climate impacts. We therefore combined the measurements of soil by also taking soil water samples. Many minerals and gases dissolve in water and can affect climate gas emissions significantly.

Water has successfully been extracted

Water has successfully been extracted

To get water out of the soil, specially designed water extractors had to be pushed through the centre of the soil while minimising any disturbance, as this could release gases that can alter the results. Not an easy task, but hey, this definitely makes it a lot more exciting!

Installing the water extractors

Installing the water extractors

The water was sucked up by a vacuum in each water file. We therefore needed to vacuum the vials by using another great special tool: The Double Stage High Vacuum Pump Deluxe Series.

It's a beast

It’s a beast

One of the fundamental principles in using scientific instruments is calibration, as it’s quite common for an instrument to lose its accuracy over time. Calibration can bring it back on track by giving it a reference value that never changes. Here we used 2 gas bottles, which contained specific mixtures that were known to us. If one day, measurements of these bottles appeared to be different, it was time to teach the instrument a lesson i.e. calibrate it.

It's calibration time

It’s calibration time

After several pages of data recording and many days later I was able to produce a solid set of data from the soil samples, which hopefully helps to give a better insight into this study.

recording data

recording data

Research in the Flow Country – Part 2 : Field trip

The Flow Country as seen from Tallahiel, one of our sampling sites

The Flow Country as seen from Tallahiel, one of our sampling sites

Field Work

Having left my lab work behind, it was time to head out and to see where all these samples, that I was measuring in the lab, originated. I was warned, that the beauty of the Flow Country would be accompanied by the multitudes of midges hence  giving the idea of solitude a whole different meaning. Luckily I joined Renée, who had plenty of experience and trained me in using the instruments as well as preparing myself for this environment.

All necessary tools for running the instrument

All necessary tools for running the instrument

During that week we spent in the Flow Country, the majority of work consisted of obtaining air samples, which is a lot harder than it might sound. To obtain nice curves of let’s say methane rise over time, obtaining the sample at the right time is absolutely crucial. Most CO2 measurements are measured with an infra-red gas analyser (IRGAs). This is a very convenient instrument, allowing easy use in the field due to its portability.



When measuring methane, instruments are either not quite as advanced or simply unaffordable. Using syringes to extract the air, like we did, allowed us to later analyse the samples in the lab. Most importantly all the samples had to be labelled correctly, so that in the lab we would know, which samples were associated with which time during the concentration rise.

Is is important to not mix up air samples of either different time or different sampling containers !

Is is important to not mix up air samples of either different time or different sampling containers !

To make things just a little bit more complicated, we measured several gas concentration at the same time (replicates), which were measured in containers that isolated it from the outside air. Those containers had a time lag to each other, allowing us to measure all containers in one go, but giving us not a lot of time to relax throughout the process, as there was always a container somewhere, that was due to be measured at any approaching new minute.

Several containers are spread out randomly for best results and wooden boards help to minimise impact on the ground

Several containers are spread out randomly for best results and wooden boards help to minimise impact on the ground

Apart from these measurements, which were both demanding and rewarding, we had to spend some time relocating old sample sites and recording new ones. All of this worked via GPS but also with a pinch of intuition, which was helpful indeed, especially if considering that some forests simply had been clear cut since the sampling sites were last recorded. And trust me, clear cut plots contain nowhere near as many identifiable  features, for orientation, as we would have wished for.

Clear cut plots which contain hidden sampling sites

Clear cut plots which contain hidden sampling sites

To finish off the beautiful excursion to the Flow Country, we had a look at one of the local Eddy Covariance Systems, which was an incredible experience, as I had heard a lot about it at University, but never seen one before. Eddy covariance systems measure the exchange of CO2 between plants & soil and the atmosphere and the data produced is in a way similar to the  chambers I used, but focusses on long-term and large-scale datasets.

An Eddy Covariance System, running on its own energy supply

An Eddy Covariance System, running on its own energy supply