Stoer Green revisited
Earlier this year we posted an account of a survey on 20th September 2019 of the wild flowers that had appeared on Stoer Green since the area was sheep-fenced earlier that year (Stoer Green: a wealth of flowers revealed). Some 69 species were logged on that occasion, including 11 that are locally scarce or rare in Assynt. This summer the Green has been a carpet of colour, with sheets of yellow bird’s-foot trefoil Lotus corniculatus and lady’s bedstraw Galium verum, interspersed with the flowers of many other species, including a wide variety of grasses (photos 1-3).
As intended, Bill Badger and I re-visited the Green this summer, on 27th June 2020. This time we had the company of Charlotte Newell who was having an enforced extended stay at Stoer during ‘lock-down’. Charlotte is going on to Bangor University to read for a masters degree in marine biology and zoology. It was good for us ‘greybeards’ to have this contribution from a younger generation.
On this occasion we extended our survey south as far as the seaward end of the large burn out of Loch an Aigeil (NC039281) and, later, north along the cliffs as far as the fence with Stoer common grazings (NC036284). This second visit proved very worthwhile, adding a further 51 species to the list for the site, including another eight that are scarce or rare locally, giving a total of 120 flowering plants recorded so far.
Finds of particular interest included amphibious bistort Persicaria amphibia in the large burn, together with a further nine species from that area that prefer damper habitats. The silvery heads of crested hair-grass Koeleria macrantha (photo 4) were widespread on the higher parts of the Green. It is a species of coastal grassland only known from two other sites in Assynt, and just one flowering spike had previously been noted on the Green.
An even more surprising discovery, amongst more than 20 different grasses in the sward, was a patch of quaking-grass Briza media just north of the small burn which bisects the site. This elegant grass is found mainly in limestone areas of the parish, with scattered outliers around the coast. Whilst admiring it, we were joined by local crofters Bob Cook and David McPhail for an interesting chat on the management of such places (photo 5).
Extending the survey along the cliff-top path added a number of heathland species to the list, including two orchids, heath spotted-orchid Dactylorhiza maculata and northern fragrant-orchid Gymnadenia borealis and also a magnificent stand of field gentian Gentianella campestris. Bill Badger later counted 129 spikes of this striking purple-flowered annual, some over 15cm tall (photos 6-7). This is one of few sites in Assynt that support large populations of both field gentian and autumn gentian Gentianella amarella, the former in the more acid cliff-top grassland and the latter in other areas enriched by shell sand. On a later visit, on 11th August, well over 300 flowering spikes of autumn gentian were seen.
A final surprise, as we walked back through the marram grass parallel to the top dyke, was down to Charlotte’s sharp eyes. In a small area of the dyke, where earth has spilled through from the adjacent field, she noticed some white and pink flowers. The white ones proved, on closer inspection, to be those of white campion Silene latifolia, whose flowers have inflated but heavily-ribbed calyces, as opposed to the smooth calyces of sea campion S. uniflora, which is found along the cliffs elsewhere on the site (photos 8-9).
White campion is a rare plant in Assynt, having been recorded from just four other sites, usually as an ephemeral garden ‘weed’. The pink flowers were those of the hybrid S. x hampeana (photos 9-10), whose parents are white and red campion S. dioica. The latter species has not been seen on the Green itself, but occurs not far away in the village. The hybrid has only once before been noted in Assynt, by P.H. Davis back in 1955, coincidentally somewhere in the Stoer area (NC02).
So, the policy of keeping sheep off the Green until late summer has not only enhanced everyone’s enjoyment of its wild flowers, but greatly increased our knowledge of what is present, with some noteworthy discoveries.
Ian M. Evans