'Rise in midges' despite harsh winter

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Experts had suggested the harsh winter might have killed off millions of midges, the scourge of the Highlands. Instead their numbers appear to have increased.

BBC News Scotland correspondent James Cook has been to Glencoe to try to find out why.

The grandeur of Glencoe never fails to take your breath away.

But for centuries one of Britain's most beautiful landscapes has been marred by the misery of the midge.

Hugh MacColl, who owns the Red Squirrel campsite in the glen, knows all about the "fearsome beastie". It's bad for his business.

"Often people are driven away," he says.

"They're going absolutely screaming desperate because they can't get away from them.

"They either shut themselves in their tent or end up in the pub or, we allow small camp fires, and they'll sit there kippering themselves in the smoke."

Even worse, some tourists leave and don't come back.

By one estimate the midge costs Scotland's tourist sector more than £250m every year in lost revenue.

And so a team of researchers is fighting back, in a big battle with the tiniest of monsters.

Hanging from a tree beside a burn in the campsite is a strange contraption: a fan blowing into a white tube like a wind-sock which in turn feeds a beaker of water.

Image caption,
The midge may be more resilient to bad weather than its predators

It's a midge trap and it's capturing the little black specks for two reasons.

The first is to provide a forecast of midge activity for the next day, now available on the internet and as a smartphone app.

Secondly, the researchers are using the data they collect to develop improved midge repellents.

They've been so successful that what began as a study by the University of Edinburgh has been spun off into a commercial company, Advanced Pest Solutions.

The firm's director Dr Alison Blackwell's description of the midge would strike fear into the heart of even the hardiest outdoors enthusiast.

"A midge has a set of mouth parts which are like shearing scissors. They cut a hole in your skin and create a pool of blood and then they put their mouth parts in and suck from that," she says, adding, rather unnecessarily, that it can be "very painful".

In the campsite Bouke Verwys, 26, from Rotterdam, bears the scars - or at least the reddened lumps - of such a close encounter.

He's been camping here with his father and brother for a week. All three agree that the charms of Glencoe hold a nasty surprise.

"We camped near a swamp last night and it was terrible," says Eelke Verwys, 28.

"There were so many midges and they bit us everywhere."

"They bit me," says Bouke, "here, I can show you. They bit me everywhere.

"It's not very painful but it's itchy.

"We are only here for a few days but I have met too many midges already."

The boys' father, Hans Verwys, 56, has not escaped either.

"Oh they are terrible," he says, "it's a horrible beast."

Damp summers

Earlier this year Dr Blackwell had wondered whether the harshest winter for a generation would provide some respite for tourists.

But there has been no sign of that happening. In fact midge numbers appear to be up on 2009.

Dr Blackwell thinks it possible that the insect has proved more resilient to the cold weather than its natural predators, bats and birds.

So the midge is hardy enough to survive sub-zero temperatures and it thrives in the warm and wet summers which scientists are predicting Scotland will see more of in the future.

"If we continue to see nice, warm, damp summers we will see an increase I think," says Dr Blackwell.

But there is some hope for those who rely on tourism.

While the Verwys family agree that the midges have caused them some discomfort, they still plan to return to Scotland.

"I think we will manage it," says Eelke.

"Even with midges it's a beautiful country."

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