Exploring Quinag: Allt Bad na Fearnaig (2)
See Exploring Quinag: Allt Bad na Fearnaig (1) for an introduction to this area.
Second visit, 14th October
Running along the southern edge of 1 km square NC1926 is the A837, originally built as a single track road by the Sutherland Estate in the late 1820s and enlarged to double track and re-aligned during the 1970s (photo 1). The narrow corridor of land affected by the making and maintenance of this road can hardly be described as ‘wild land’, but it is, nevertheless, part of the JMT Quinag estate. It was, unsurprisingly, not covered by the vegetation survey of Quinag carried out by Ben and Alison Averis in 2006-2007.
However, like all road corridors, quarried into the landscape in some places, and running on engineered embankments in others, with managed verges and ditches, it constitutes a linear area of high biodiversity, which should not go unrecorded.
After a busy summer, traffic began to ease off in the autumn, so on 14th October, one of us (IME) spent just over an hour recording the plants of the verges and ditches of a 300m stretch, from the boundary of the square at NC199260, westwards along the southern side to the start of the crash barriers at NC197260, and back on the northern side. This yielded 50 species on each side of the road, with a cumulative total of 59. Noteworthy were frog rush Juncus ranarius, a usually coastal relative of the common toad rush J. bufonius, the locally rare species knotgrass Polygonum aviculare (its close relative equal-leaved knotgrass P. arenastrum is frequent along Assynt roadsides) and, in passing, a fine cluster of the bright-red fruiting bodies of the fly agaric Amanita muscaria under downy birch.
Completing my walk back to the Boat Bay, where I had parked, I was also able to add, from the next square to the east (NC2026), mouse-ear hawkweed Pilosella officinarum , which has single lemon-yellow flowers in the summer, and a large patch of the bluish-violet flowered tufted vetch Vicia cracca.
Third visit, 18th October
Allt Bad na Fearnaig
The A837 is very straight in this area, with crash barriers and narrow verges (photo 2), so we parked up safely further to the west and walked along the verge to where the boundary burn runs down some small falls just to the north of the road (NC192262). Here we noted a fine hazel (uncommon on Quinag) on roadside crags that may precede the widening of the road, and in the small gorges above the falls (photo 3) at least four holly trees, two of them berry-bearing females (photo 4). Holly is acquiring, for us, the status of an icon along the south side of Quinag, since its condition is a good measure of the extent of deer browsing.
These small gorges also contain relict specimens of rowan and downy birch. A fallen, but still rooted, downy birch, growing vigorously (a ‘phoenix’ tree), although isolated, was accompanied by examples of one of its mycorrhizal fungi, the brown birch bolete Leccinum scabrum.
Leaving the gorges, we had good views to the east, along Loch Assynt to Conival, its flanks wreathed in cloud (photo 5), and ahead, crags rising to the summit of Spidean Coinich (photo 6). A little higher up the valley, the course of the boundary burn has been straightened and deepened at some time in the past. On the first part of this re-aligned stretch (NC184264), was a row of downy birches protected from browsing by the steepness of its banks (photo 7). They were the last birches we saw that day, until returning to the road, and had attracted the passing attention of a small flock of long-tailed tits. A narrow band of grassland along the banks of the burn nearby (photo 8) provided habitat for a suite of typical species, including cat’s-ear Hypochaeris radicata bird’s-foot trefoil Lotus corniculatus and yellow pimpernel Lysimachia nemorum.
The old track and miry ground
We lunched on the north face of a small ridge just beyond the point where the old track crosses the burn, after the sun had come out, with fine views of Quinag rising steeply in the mid-distance (photo 9). To the east, the burn wound its way towards us through a flat area dominated by purple moor-grass Molinia caerulea. At the far side of this area, we could just see the point where it falls over the gently sloping beds of the lowest part of the Torridonian sandstones, which we had visited on 2nd October.
After lunch we returned to the track and followed it eastwards (photo 10) to the point where we had turned off north on our previous visit. In this area it shadows the line of a mafic dyke in the Lewisian gneiss. Outcrops of the mineral-rich rocks of this dyke (photo 11) provide a suitable substrate for a variety of mosses and lichens. These included a showy fruticose lichen Stereocaulon sp. (possibly S. vesuvianum; they are difficult to identify), whose thalli, close-up, resemble the florets of a miniature cauliflower (photo 12).
Dropping down off the track, we followed small burns down into a large area of boggy ground dominated in places by black bog-rush Schoenus nigricans (photo 13), indicating some degree of base-enrichment, presumably from the dyke. Nearby were extensive stands of white beak-sedge Rhynchospora alba. We were also pleased to find, again, the tiny bronzy-green rosettes of pale butterwort Pinguicula lusitanica. This species appears to be wintergreen, unlike its larger relative common butterwort P. vulgaris, whose starfish-like rosettes completely disappear in the autumn.
Back to the road
We then found our way back to the A837, through some testing areas of purple moor-grass tussocks, finishing up about half a kilometre to the east of where we had left the road. A pleasing find on the rocky banks along the north side of the road was a small clump of burnet rose Rosa pimpinellifolia, with ripe black hips (photo 14).
The deep ditches on this side of the road have been colonised, in places, by now quite large eared willows Salix aurita. Associated with one of these were some impressive gill fungi with browny-orange caps and striking scaly stipes (photos 15-16). These were later confirmed by Bruce Ing as examples of the girdled webcap Cortinarius trivialis, one of few readily identifiable species in this very large genus, some members of which are very poisonous. It is described as ‘occasional’ in the British Isles and usually associated with willows. John Blunt had it once in Assynt, at Baddidarach (NC0802) on 20th November 2008, but the only other record from West Sutherland is from the Bettyhill area (NC76) in 1974, so it was a good find.
Crossing the road, we made our way down a steep brambly embankment to an area of wet woodland on the edge of Loch Assynt (NC196260), dominated by downy birch. This yielded a colourful patch of fly agarics Amanita muscaria, but not much additional in the higher plant line, except some northern bedstraw Galium boreale, on rocks at the water’s edge. This sometimes occurs, as here, around lochs fed by burns off the limestone. We also noticed a clump of a shrubby relative of the St.John’s-worts, tutsan Hypericum androsaemum, at the foot of the embankment. This is native further south in the British Isles, especially in western areas, but was widely planted in the past and thought to be spread by birds.
Adjoining this woodland is a heathery peninsula which runs westward parallel to the shore of the loch. We passed up on the chance to wade across to it, since it did not look as if it would add much to the day’s finds. So we made our way back along a hitherto-unrecorded stretch of the southern verge of the A837, adding a number of predictable species.
We could also see, from above, an almost continuous band of tutsan, just above the shoreline at the foot of the embankment (photo 17). This species is much more widespread locally than indicated in the Flora of Assynt, and is probably originally of garden origin in this area; it occurs no further north in Scotland. The scrubby verge also had some leaves of wild strawberry Fragaria vesca. We completed our walk, out-of-square, on the stony track down to a new jetty (NC192262), where there was a fine showing of orange-peel fungus Aleuria aurantia (photo 18).
It had been a useful day, with improving weather, if a little chilly at times. The higher plant tally was some 83 species, at least 24 of which were ‘new’ to the 1km square. This gave us an overall total, for all the visits, of 118 species from NC1926, not bad for the time of year. Animal life was again sparse, apart from the predictable larvae of drinker and fox moths, and empty cocoons of northern eggar moth, but some colourful fungi had added interest.
After three visits we felt that we had begun to get some understanding of this corner of Quinag. Next year we may have another look earlier in the season, perhaps on the way up to the headwaters of the Allt Bad na Fearnaig, below the Bealach Leireag.
Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards