Review of the residency. Area Manager SNH

“It has been an absolute delight and privilege to have Derek as our Artist in Residence at Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve to celebrate 2013 Year of Natural Scotland. We had hopes of what a residency could produce for the NNR but Derek has far exceeded our expectations in every respect. Not only has Derek captured the many facets and species of the NNR through a collection of truly stunning artwork but has opened up the NNR to new audiences through media coverage and an innovative programme of collaborative and outreach projects such as creation of the first virtual trail. His work to explore the links between science, art and nature lead him to bring together a collection of artists and scientists for some exciting events exploring the boundaries and connections of these disciplines and challenging our knowledge and understanding of this very special place. His knowledge of the natural world, undoubted natural talent  and infectious enthusiasm has inspired new and old visitors to the NNR and produced a lasting legacy which will extend well beyond this year.”

Caroline Gallacher. Scottish Natural Heritage. Area Officer Fife.

Review of the residency. Reserve Manager SNH.

“When the Year of Natural Scotland 2013 was first mooted , I had the idea of having an Artist in Residence for Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve.  I first thought I might be fortunate to get the interest of a student at the local art college College. However, I thought Derek might want to be involved for a month or so; I crossed my fingers and phoned Derek. His response was that he would leap at the opportunity and, since then, Derek’s output has been inspiring, innovating and utterly fantastic. I have had many highlights in my career as Reserve Manager here, but without doubt, securing Derek as our Artist in Residence has been the most rewarding in terms of personal satisfaction, and in the amazing benefits for the Reserve and SNH. “

Tom Cunningham. Reserve Manager Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve

BBC Countryfile and virtual Trail

I spent yesterday filming with BBC Countryfile and being interviewed about the artist residency I am doing at Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve. The program will be screened on 2nd June.


 Setting up camera and sound.  countryfile

countryfile Interview with Matt Baker on BBC Countryfile.

Sea Eagles

I have seen up to three sea eagles at the point at any one time. These birds are from the East coast reintroduction project. They are really huge and very impressive birds in flight. They often hang around on the sandbanks near the seals or perch on the sea fences. They hunt for fish disorientated by the currents at the river mouth and look for any carrion washed up on the shore.

sea eagles at point

sea eagles at point

Sometimes I have seen them hunting the eiders and long-tailed ducks by continually harrying them until the duck is exhausted and they are able to grab them as they are swimming near the surface. It is a spectacular sight with lots of thrashing around and feathers everywhere. Most of the time, however, the eagles seem very placid and lazy indeed.

Sea eagle

Sea eagle on the shore

In 2013 at least two pairs attempted to breed in eastern Scotland and a chick successfully fledged.





Red Squirrels

Tentsmuir is one of the most important places in Fife -perhaps in Scotland- for red squirrels. You will often find the nibbled-down pine cones that they have been feeding on scattered on the forest floor.

squirrel studies    Squirrel sketches.

They feed until they are full then store extra food by burying it in the ground. You can see some of these areas around the squirrel feeders at Morton Lochs where the badgers come along at night and dig up what the squirrels have buried!

Inspired by the poem "Squirrel" by James Stewart who is writer in residence at Tentsmuir for YNS 2013

Inspired by the poem “Squirrel” by James Stewart who is writer in residence at Tentsmuir for YNS 2013

You can often tell individual squirrels apart. At Morton Lochs there is one with a very light tail and another that is very dark. Have a look at the trailcam footage of squirrels at Morton by clicking here and see if you can spot which one is which.




Jays are common in the forest but rarely seen. They are surprisingly easy to overlook – despite having bright pink plumage, electric blue patches on their wings and a striking white rump that stands out in the dark forest when it flies off.



Jay studies

Although they are wary, they are also inquisitive. When I set trail cameras for the squirrels they would always come in to investigate and seemed intrigued by the camera lens. Walking around, I have never seen more than three but the camera would often film between five and seven together.

Click here to see trailcam footage of a Jay.


There are several species of owls present at and around Tentsmuir. The most common is the tawny owl which makes the typical “twit-two” call. Occasionally you may see a barn owl. These can be seen hunting on the farmland inland from the forest or occasionally along forest rides.

Tawny owl sketch Tawny owl sketch.

Less often seen, but very typical of forestry plantation is the long-eared owl. There are a few pairs nesting in the forest but you need to be very lucky to see them.

Painting of a long eared owl

Painting of a long eared owl

Ducks at sea

There are huge numbers of eider duck wintering offshore and in the river. Many of these nest up on the Ythan in Aberdeenshire. They are attracted to the Tay estuary by the large beds of mussels which comprise the most of their diet.

Painting of an eider drake

Painting of an eider drake


Swell evening. Painting of eider ducks

Swell evening. Painting of eider ducks


As well as the eider you can see the beautiful long-tailed ducks, goldeneye and scoters.

Long tailed duck studies

Long tailed duck studies



seals sketch

Both Harbour and Grey Seals are present on the reserve. While I have done a few rough sketches on-site, I have collated some older studies into more finished paintings which you can see here and I will be using them to produce some narrative works that incorporate something of the way we think about and portray seals – there is something about the almost human faces of these creatures that gives them a very compelling quality in folk mythology, literature and in the way we regard them as fellow inhabitants of our environment.

Grey Seals

Grey Seals

But of course they perceive the world in a very different way from us – informed by the world that they inhabit. we think of Tentsmuir as a landscape, but the seals are only on land for perhaps 20% of the time and when at sea, are only on the surface for 20% of that time. Their world is one of depths and feeling currents of dark water bounded by the edge of the land.

Young seal swimming among kelp.

Young seal swimming among kelp.

While the Grey Seals are increasing in numbers, the Harbour Seals are decreasing for reasons that are not clear. They use similar habitats but their behaviour, breeding and range of movement is very different. I have been talking with researchers from the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews University and discussing the tracking and mapping of seals fitted with geolocators (they fit them with innovative mobile-phone technology!) and am thinking of how I might be able to incorporate that somehow into some new artwork.

Click here to see some film of the seals at Tentsmuir Point.