Duart, Nedd: surprises in a familiar landscape
It is curious how much goes unseen, right under our noses. Ian has been admiring the wooded shores of the northern part of Loch Nedd (NC1332) from his back garden for nearly thirty years. Early this May he spotted, for the first time, in the distance, a large patch of white below the old house at Upper Duart (photos 1-2). He thought it might be a flowering stand of bird cherry Prunus padus, which is scattered through the Nedd woodlands.
On 31st May 2021 we decided to explore this area, dropping down off the Duart track to an old path that winds its way through the steeply-sloping woods above the edge of the loch. One of the surprises in this area is the number of ruins of small buildings, some perhaps built to house livestock, others, nearer the water, to store fishing gear (photo 3). A little further on, between Upper and Lower Duart, are ones that were previously inhabited. The late ‘Pal’ Macleod of Drumbeg was born in Upper Duart and pointed out, in the 1990s, a mossy ruin, Tigh Barabel, the home of Annabel, a great-aunt, and her sister, back in the 1870s.
We did, indeed, find a tangled thicket of bird cherry just off the path (NC13653254), containing at least five substantial trees, surrounding by sprawling branches and sucker shoots (photo 4). They were smothered with long racemes of white flowers, the petals of which, seen close-up, had toothed edges, which we had never noticed before (photos 5-6). The surrounding area had a rich flora typical of damp woodland on the gneiss, including bluebell (photo 7), greater stitchwort, primrose, water avens, valerian and upland enchanter’s-nightshade Circaea x intermedia, with a speckled wood flying in a patch of sunlight.
We then made our way along the path and down into a small, sheltered, south-facing, rocky bay (NC13683260), to have our lunch in the sunshine. This bay is flanked by two of the most magnificent aspens we have come across in Assynt, perhaps 15m high, with trunks nearly a metre in diameter at the base, and huge rootstocks snaking along the rocky shoreline on which they grow (photos 8-11).
Scattered through vegetation just above the shore were skeleton leaves of the aspens, studded with the black stromata of an ascomycete fungus (photo 12). We suspect they are those of a species called Linospora ceuthocarpa, for which there are very few records on NBN, but that will require confirmation.
The bay also provided glimpses of sea slaters Ligia oceanica, largest of the British woodlice, scuttling through the inter-tidal pebbles, a hazelnut opened by a wood mouse, large red damselflies Pyrrhosoma nymphula, a green-veined white and a distant view of a grey seal. A good haul for a delightful lunch-spot (photo 13).
A little further on, the path opens onto the edge of a large area of former cultivation, now well-wooded around the edges, where Gwen spotted a fast-flying male orange-tip butterfly, our first of the season, and also several moths, including brown silver-lines, peacock moth and a broken-barred carpet (photo 14), the last well-camouflaged on a downy birch trunk.
We continued wandering along the wooded western shoreline of Loch Nedd (NC136325), with good views of the opposite shore, where there are clearings that were once cultivated (photo 15). We were looking for lungwort lichens Lobaria spp., all four British species of which occur here on sheltered rock-faces and trees. Amongst them, the crinkly thalli of another genus of leafy lichens, Sticta, caught our attention; they are usually dark brown, but these were variegated with patches of bright green (photo 16).
A small sample was collected, which Tony Fletcher has identified as the brown Sticta sylvatica, which is widespread in our ‘Atlantic woodlands’, together with its much less common green relative Sticta canariensis. In S. sylvatica the photobiont partner is the cyanobacterium Nostoc, but this is replaced in S. canariensis by a green alga. There are only two previous records of the latter in Assynt; it is classed as Nationally Rare and Vulnerable.
Eventually we broke out of the woodland onto the southern edge of a shingle beach (NC136330), where we had a leisurely tea break, looking across the mouth of Loch Nedd towards Eddrachillis Bay. In the distance, a pair of red-throated divers made their leisurely way out into the sea loch and, closer to, several examples of the metallic-tinted click beetle Ctenicera cupreus were buzzing around us.
Working inland to the edge of the brackish Duart Loch, we checked an inlet in the saltmarsh at its southern end (NC134330) for the stringy green plants of a rare, if very unprepossessing, aquatic, beaked tasselweed Ruppia maritima (photo 17), which now occurs at only one other place in Assynt.
There are many muddy hollows in the saltmarsh, and these provided us with more finds. In shallow water in one hollow were some short tubes (photo 18), possibly built by midge larvae, similar to those found in denser clusters in freshwater puddles on peaty paths. We disturbed a couple of frogs, and Gwen spotted in a drier hollow another metallic beetle, a small carabid about 10mm long (photo 19). Captured, examined under a microscope, and later released, this proved to be unusual, the species Agonum marginatum, recorded only once before in Assynt, by Ian, on 16th January 1994, less than a hundred metres away.
We then turned back through the woodlands and up the track which runs past Lower and Upper Duart. The house at Lower Duart was extensively restored in the 1990s, but the render on its walls is now beginning to crack, affording a foothold for tiny tussocks of wall screw-moss Tortula muralis (photo 20). This species has long hair points to its leaves, and very elegant capsules; it is typical of this habitat in urban areas, but less common out in the wilds.
There was one last surprise for the day. Just north of the house at Lower Duart there is a nondescript patch of nettles (NC136327), which Ian has walked past many times (photo 21). In it, Gwen spotted some purplish-green leaves with rounded teeth, those of ground-ivy Glechoma hederacea (photo 22). Although widespread further south, this prostrate herb is really scarce in the North-West Highlands, and known from only three other places in Assynt, all associated with human habitation. It is said to have been used to flavour beer, since hops do not thrive this far north.
Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards