A small mossy corner of Quinag
On 15th March 2020 bryologist Gordon Rothero, Gwen Richards and I set out to explore the south-eastern corner of the John Muir Trust’s Quinag estate, from Skiag Bridge (NC234244) up the Skiag Burn (Allt Sgiathaig) and across to Lochan Feoir. It was the second day of Gordon’s spring visit and we chose the area in view of a poor weather forecast and also because Ben and Alison Averis, during their vegetation survey of 2006-7, had noted some base-loving plants on the eastern side of the burn.
Parking just west of the Bridge, we cut across to the burn, where Gordon homed in on a couple of typically reddish, seamed, Fucoid Bed boulders on its eastern bank (photo 1). Their vertical faces bore a rich assortment of mosses, including conspicuous bright green cushions of the common calcicole frizzled crisp-moss Tortella tortuosa, but also a good population of the much smaller recurved rock-bristle Seligeria recurvata, ‘fruiting’ abundantly (photos 2-3). Four of the seven British species of the latter genus of minute mosses occur in Assynt, all on basic rocks, but this species is restricted locally to the mineral-rich Fucoid Beds. The down-curved setae, about 3mm long, which carry the capsules, readily identify it.
As we worked our way up the eastern bank of the burn, the vegetation did indeed show signs of base-enrichment from the limestones and associated rocks outcropping just above the road. Examples, in stony flushes, were yellow saxifrage Saxifraga aizoides and black bog-rush Schoenus nigricans. There is an intriguing unlocalised reference, in the Averis’s vegetation survey, of grass-of-parnassus Parnassia palustris from Quinag, where it has never previously been recorded, and this may well be where it occurred.
Further up the burn we came upon a splendid ravine (NC234246), which I didn’t know existed. It is not shown on the 1;25,000 O.S. map and is invisible from the road (photo 4). It is tricky to access, being cut through hard, mineral-poor, Pipe Rock, with steep and densely-vegetated sides supporting a few trees, including some old downy birches, rowans and a holly. Gordon explored the eastern side of the ravine as far as he could get up it, adding 17 new species, mainly liverworts, to a bryophyte list already standing at 50 species. The walls again showed signs of base-flushing from the ground above, with the ‘strict lime-loving’ thallose liverwort Preissia quadrata (photo 5) and the calcicolous green dog-lichen Peltigera leucophlebia. While he was labouring down below (photo 6), we took a quick coffee break, enlivened by the sight of a dipper flying high and fast downstream.
Leaving the ravine, we continued upstream for another 400m or so, with diminishing bryological returns and into a freshening, rain-bearing, northerly wind, until we decided to cut our losses and worked our way cross-country to the eastern end of Lochan Feoir (NC230252). Here we found some shelter in tall heather on its northern bank for lunch.
Gordon had been looking for the ‘nationally scarce’ liverwort Odontoschisma elongatum in muddy areas on the loch margins (photo 7) and was successful. Since he got his eye in on the unprepossessing sludgy areas it appears to favour, he has found it beside many of the Assynt lochs, and it is now known to be widespread but local in the Highlands. Meanwhile Gwen and I logged a couple of male toads making their way back to what must be a breeding site.
At this point, we decided that enough was enough and started making our slithery way back down the exit burn from the lochan to the Lochinver-Skiag road, reaching it about 1km west of the Bridge. Some frogspawn was noted in a roadside ditch (NC229246), and nearby Gordon spotted the writhing stems of stag’s-horn clubmoss Lycopodium clavatum (photo 8) at a new site on broken quartzite on the north side of the road (NC229246).
We later crossed over to the south side, where the ground beneath the galvanised crash-barriers yielded a bryological curiosity, the thread-moss Bryum pallescens. This particular member of a large genus of mosses appears to have a tolerance, or even a preference, for sites contaminated with heavy metals, including zinc, copper and lead. It does not feature in the bryophyte section of the Flora of Assynt (2002), but has since been found locally in suitable sites. Reaching the car after some three and a half rather chilly hours in the field, we went back to Gwen’s to warm up and enjoy a very welcome cup of tea.
Gordon’s bryophyte list for the day amounted to a very respectable 106 species, given the predominantly mineral-poor underlying rocks. We felt that we had got to know this south-eastern corner of Quinag a little better and intend to search for the grass-of-parnassus later in the year.
Ian M. Evans