Exploring Quinag: lochans along the old track
During the autumn we have visited a number of areas on the Quinag estate of the John Muir Trust, as a contribution to the Quinag Wildlife Project. The visits are to 1km squares never before recorded in detail, or not recently. We list higher plants as a way of exploring the ground, but note, photograph or sample anything else that looks interesting, from geological features down to microscopic life. Fortunately, we have friends with more expertise than us to help identify some of our finds.
The forecast for Wednesday 16th September 2020 was good, in a changeable week, so we targeted an area south of Creag Sgiathaig (NC2225), on the southern slopes of the hill. We had made brief visits thereabouts back in November and March, but both were ‘out-of-season’ for recording higher plants.
We had to park on the south side of the A837, which was very busy, but the necessary walk west along its verge for half a kilometre did give us a single flower of harebell Campanula rotundifolia, where it has never before been noted (NC231244).
Escaping from the roadside up the exit burn from this loch (photo 1), we were soon out of sight and sound of the traffic and were able to have a leisurely mid-morning break on its bank (photo 2). A female common darter Sympetrum striolatum was egg-laying in a bay, dipping the end of her abdomen just below the surface. Meadow grasshoppers Chorthippus parallelus, which are flightless, were leaping up at our feet, one of few orthopterans found this far north.
Feoir relates to grass or herbage, which may refer to the emergent aquatics which vegetate much of this shallow loch. At its edge, there were mats of the drifted remains of the hefty stems of bulrush Schoenoplectus lacustris, covered with tiny black fungal fruiting bodies (photos 3-4). These have been identified by Bruce Ing as those of a host-specific ascomycete fungus Hypohelion scirpinum, which NBN does not map for Scotland. However the local fungal database, compiled by John Blunt, does include a couple of records.
The old track
We had intended to work our way up a feeder burn to the north-west of Lochan Feoir, thence over a low watershed to Lochan an Duibhe. On closer inspection, both the burn course and adjacent moorland, on Cambrian quartzites, were conspicuously lacking in diversity.
So we turned our attention to the old track which runs along the side of hill, between the burn and a line of crags to its north (photo 5). This track is described in John Home’s Survey of Assynt, carried out in 1774 (Adam 1960, p.5), as the ‘road to Little Assint’ from ‘Auchamore’, taking in Tumore on the way. If its present state, nearly 250 years later, is anything to go by, it would have been a good route for people and ponies, perhaps used seasonally as a drove road. It is something of a switchback, but the line it follows expertly avoids boggier parts of the landscape, some with very deep pools.
Along the track the plant-life began to look up. As soon as we hit the Torridonian sandstones which underlie the quartzites, black bogrush Schoenus nigricans appeared, with pale butterwort Pinguicula lusitanica and other regular associates.
The wall-to-wall sunshine, which we enjoyed all day, was tempered by a cool easterly breeze, and lunch was taken in shelter provided by a broken sandstone crag (NC222255). This gave us magnificent views of the eastern end of Loch Assynt and the parish boundary hills beyond. A skein of about 80 pink-footed geese flew over high, making their way south, and a little later a raven floated past in the opposite direction.
This crag protects from grazing the first of few trees seen all day, a small holly (photo 6), and we collected a sample of its fallen leaves for the holly speckle fungi which break down their tough tissues. We recognised the usual Trochila ilicina, which has fruiting bodies opening by flaps, but much smaller black dots were later identified by Bruce Ing as the rarely recorded Phyllosticta phylloprina.
A little further along the track we went up to look at a conspicuous crag, which was right on the almost horizontal boundary of the upper Cambrian quartzites and lower Torridonian sandstones (photo 7; NC222255). We could put our hands in the slot between the two contrasting rock types, and were intrigued by the thought that this slot represents a discontinuity in the history of the Earth of more than half a billion years. There was a greater variety of lichens on the slightly more mineral-rich sandstones, and they also carried the only plant of bearberry Arctostaphylos uva-ursi we came across all day.
Regaining the track, we crossed the watershed (photo 8) and dropped down to the eastern end of Lochan an Duibhe (photo 9), which is the source of the westward-flowing Allt na Doire Cuilinn. Duibhe is black or dark, but it was not immediately obvious why it was thought to deserve that description.
Just before we reached the edge of the loch, more tussocks of black bog-rush marked the edge of a small bog pool (NC221255), covered in places with the shiny leaves of bog pondweed Potamogeton polygonifolius. There were also clumps of Nordic bladderwort Utricularia stygia, the commonest species locally and the one with the coarsest leaves. A sample was collected to confirm its identity, which requires examination of the bladders under a microscope.
The bladderwort was developing spherical terminal buds; these sink to the bottom, which is how the plants over-winter. The material collected also provided a desmid sample, which was sent off to David Williamson, a friend in Leicestershire who has made a lifetime’s study of these microscopic algae. He later reported finding 14 forms in the sample, including the fissured elliptical plates of a species of Micrasterias (photo 10).
We also collected a sample of a small spike-rush on the edge of the pool, which proved to be the few-flowered spike-rush Eleocharis quinqueflora, a frequent associate of black bog-rush. Some of the plants had been attacked by ergot, an ascomycete fungus whose black spindle-shaped sclerotia replace the fruits (photo 11). Bruce Ing later confirmed this as Claviceps nigricans, which is much rarer than the deadly poisonous C. purpurea found on a variety of grasses.
Lochan an Duibhe
Less than 100m of this loch is situated in the 1km square we were recording, but it gave a substantial boost to our list of higher plants. Aquatics included the predictable shoreweed Littorella uniflora, water lobelia Lobelia dortmanna and lesser spearwort Ranunculus flammula, but also, unexpectedly, floating clumps of the delicate lesser bladderwort Utricularia minor. A sample of this was collected and later processed for desmids; David Williamson identified 13 forms, only one of which was also found in the sample from the adjacent bog pool. They included Closterium rostratum, whose narrow, curved, twin cells look like miniature long-bows (photo 12).
Aquatic animal life included the green, jelly balls of the colonial ciliate protozoan Ophrydium sp., which has an algal symbiont, hence its colour. Beside the loch were a male black darter Sympetrum danae, a queen bumblebee Bombus cf. lucorum and a small frog.
Along the edge of the loch, at its north-eastern corner (photo 13), there is a small patch of short grassland, perhaps where seepage from the hill above provides some extra nutrients. It was obviously favoured by red deer, and contained three ‘new’ grasses, sweet vernal-grass Anthoxanthum odoratum, viviparous fescue Festuca vivipara and Yorkshire Fog Holcus lanatus. Although very ‘ordinary’, they were conspicuously absent from the rest of the local landscape, much of which is dominated by just one species, purple moor-grass Molinia caerulea.
They were accompanied by a handful of other species not otherwise noted that day, including marsh hawk’s-beard Crepis paludosa, yellow pimpernel Lysimachia nemorum and some small grazed bushes of eared willow Salix aurita. There were also scattered plants of wood horsetail Equisetum sylvaticum growing, unusually, in the water.
This small area bumped up our list by at least 12 species. Our last throw at increasing it was a bouldery crag on the south side of the loch. This added lemon-scented fern Oreopteris limbosperma, slender St John’s-wort Hypericum pulchrum and a scraggy rowan.
After which comparative excitement, we retraced our steps to the south-east, across pool-strewn mires with abundant white beak-sedge Rhynchospora alba, and then dropped down to the road, with good views of Lochan Feoir and Loch Assynt on the way (photo 14).
The higher plant tally for nearly five hours spent on the hill was 76 species; not bad for a predominantly peat-covered area on this particular geology. Although many of the plants are commonplace elsewhere, it is fun to see how many one can find in what might seem to be an unrewarding landscape. We had also explored another section of the old track, which dates back at least to the 18th century, probably long before. Bonuses were the sunshine, wide-ranging views and a good assortment of ‘bits and bobs’.
Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards
Adam, R.J. (editor), 1960. John Home’s Survey of Assynt. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.