With horizontal rain lashing the windows in early June, it was pleasant to hark back to a warm day in April for the third of these catch-up articles. Gwen Richards and I had not had a proper ‘walkabout’ for over ten days, so on 19th April 2019 (Good Friday) we made for Little Assynt, with Jess. We had heard from Anna Mackay that a track made by those erecting the new deer-fence gave ready access to remoter parts of the estate, and so it proved.
We started up the All Abilities Path from the car-park, and turned right over the bridge at the bottom of the wide ‘tongue’ of Loch na h’Innse Fraoich (NC216263) for a leisurely coffee on the seat, before going ‘off piste’. The track followed the new fence past the northern end of the loch, where older plantings yielded quite a variety of small birds, including dunnock, redpolls overhead, robin, willow warbler and wren, with meadow pipits in the more open ground. We also disturbed three hooded crows. The peaty lochan at NC164266 was inspected for palmate newts, which are known to occur there in some numbers (probably because fish are absent), but we only found pond skaters and whirligig beetles.
Ancient woodland along the slope to the north-west had a good showing of spring flowers such as bluebell, primrose and wood anemone, and then we were into the old sheiling at the south-west end of Leitir Easaich (photo 1; palmate newt lochan on left; see also plate 8 in the Flora of Assynt, taken in 1995). Here field woodrush Luzula campestris was in flower (photo 2), aptly since it is known elsewhere as Good Friday Grass; a specimen taken for checking had the diagnostic short filaments, just one quarter the length of the anthers. Field vole burrows were found near the top wall of the sheiling, and there was the colourful caterpillar of a drinker moth nearby.
Just north of the sheiling the new fence has a sharp kink, with a high seat for deer control installed nearby. Gwen tried this out (photo 3) and found that it did provide excellent views over the surrounding ground. We continued through original plantings, which are now quite dense, with more wood anemones (photo 4) and a shallow pool containing frog tadpoles. Lunch was taken in the shade of downy birches at the edge of a group of Scots pines, with the varied tree cover adding bullfinch, chaffinch and coal tits to the bird list.
A little further on, at the north end of Leitir Easaich, the track parts from the new fence (photo 5), which climbs over a steep heathery hill on its way to the western end of Loch Bad a’Chigean. We followed the track up an old stone dyke onto a ridge which gave us a distant view of the loch (photo 6). There were two ducks in the shallows, which seen through binoculars proved to be a pair of wigeon, presumably on one of their remote inland breeding sites, an interesting find.
The track then snaked down onto a valley mire (NC165271), with a flora including slender sedge Carex lasiocarpa and black bog-rush Schoenus nigricans, where I collected a bagful of ‘squidge’ to sample for desmids (microscopic green algae). My desmidologist friend David Williamson did not look at the sample for a while, since he was visiting family in Florida, where he tells me he was able to collect from a pool that also housed alligators. He has recently provided a list of 15 species of desmids from the mire, commenting ‘mostly common, but the diatoms in the sample were more impressive!’ Unfortunately, diatoms, although a most important basal component of freshwater food webs, are quite another group of organisms from desmids, with perhaps 100,000 species described worldwide (as opposed to ‘a few thousand’ desmids), and we do not have access to an expert in their identification.
We then worked our way up onto another ridge east of Loch Gleannan a’Choit, which gave us our first views of Loch Innis Thorcaill, to my mind one of the most beautiful on Little Assynt (photo 7), with gorse in flower above the alder-fringed shore on the far bank (photo 8). Dropping down to the stony burn between the main loch and its satellite (NC161277), we than had an easy walk, albeit across one very boggy patch, to the ruins of the house at Poll Tigh a’Carraghein (maybe hollow of the house of the headland, a reference to the shape of the adjacent loch?). It was occupied by a shepherd through much of the 19th century and there is a ruined barn nearby. A common lizard scuttled away from the path in a drier area and heather beetles Lochmaea suturalis were flying in the sun.
The ruins (NC161277) are situated in an extensive area of acid grassland (photo 9), parts of which must once have been cultivated, and still harbour moles. The walls were mortared, providing suitable habitat for black spleenwort Asplenium adiantum-nigrum low on one side, although they are not now in good condition (photo 10). The views from the elevated site are stunning, and since the weather continued very warm (at over 20 deg.C), albeit with a refreshing breeze, we took some time out before starting back. The only bird life seen were two, presumably competing, male stonechats, although we did find red grouse droppings. I made a token list of higher plants from the site, but it was a bit early in the year for serious recording in such habitats.
We then turned for home, the 3km back to the car taking us about an hour and a half, allowing for a short tea break. Another common lizard was seen and a mole had made a shallow burrow across the track in one place (possibly a male cutting cross-country in search of a female). However we did come across an interesting colony of chironomid midge larvae in a shallow peaty puddle (photos 11 and 12). The larvae live in parallel upright tubes fashioned from silk and mud, pumping water through the tubes for oxygen and feeding on minute plant and animal life. As the pools dry out the tubes fall over, presenting something of a puzzle if you haven’t seen them. However, I have looked inside a sample and found the larvae, whose blood red colour indicates the presence of haemoglobin, allowing them to cope with fluctuating oxygen levels.
So, in conclusion, the fencers’ track affords much easier access to the remoter parts of Little Assynt than was previously the case. Our observations were fairly predictable, given the time of year (except for the wigeon), but the setting was glorious. The track will hopefully be kept open in the future and is highly recommended.
Ian M. Evans