Quinag Wildlife Project – Introduction to the Project
Ian Evans [This introduction to the Project was originally published in The Highland Naturalist 17, 16-19 (July 2021)]
Lying to the west of the main road between Ullapool and Durness (A894), between Loch Assynt and Loch a ‘Chairn Bhain, is what has been described as the ‘monumentally impressive’ hill of Quinag (Figure 1). It is one of four celebrated hills in the West Sutherland parish of Assynt, the others being Conival, Suilven and Canisp.
The Quinag estate was purchased by the John Muir Trust (JMT) in 2005 and covers an area of 3,699 hectares (9,140 acres). It is bounded to the south by Loch Assynt, to the east by the A894, to the west by burns running south and north from the Bealach Leireag and to the north by old fence lines, together with a small length of coast and an island.
The hill is actually a Y-shaped range, with three peaks, Sail Ghorm (blue heel, 776m), Sail Gharbh (rough heel, 808 m) and Spidean Coinich (mossy peak, 764m). It is composed of Torridonian sandstones, capped in places by Cambrian quartzites and standing on an ancient foreland of Lewisian gneiss, cut in places by mafic dykes.
Since the hill is readily accessed from a car-park on the A894, it is popular with walkers, and over the last century or more has also attracted attention from a fair number of naturalists and ecologists. However, information resulting from their studies is widely dispersed in published and unpublished sources. It was this lack of a readily accessible record that encouraged the Assynt Field Club, in 2019, to propose to the John Muir Trust setting up, in partnership, the Quinag Wildlife Project, which is lodged on the Field Club’s website (www.assyntwildlife.org.uk).
A grant was obtained from the Coigach and Assynt Living Landscapes Project, and work started late in 2020 to gather information. Eilidh Summers has been employed to facilitate this process and the project is being supervised by Romany Garnett of the JMT and Ian Evans of the AFC.
Broadly speaking, the aim is to assemble and make available as much information as possible about the landscape and wildlife of the hill, and also the human activities, past and present, that affect them. Although the grant only covers part of 2021, it is hoped that work will continue well into the future, concentrating on aspects that have so far received less attention.
Quinag has had the benefit of two comprehensive vegetation surveys, that of R.E.C. Ferreira in the 1980s and of Ben and Alison Averis in 2006-2007. The higher plants were surveyed at tetrad level by Pat and Ian Evans and Gordon Rothero in the course of fieldwork for the Flora of Assynt (2002), and a number of visits have been made since.
Through the kindness of Andy Amphlett of the BSBI, 5,318 records of higher plants, covering 431 species, have been downloaded from the BSBI’s main database (see Figure 2, of creeping lady’s-tresses, new to the site in 2018). Gordon Rothero has contributed some 3,170 bryophyte records from his work for the Flora and subsequent visits; so far he has logged 118 species of liverworts and 229 of mosses (see Figure 3, of Glyphomitrium daviesii, found sparingly on gneiss outcrops). Dr Tony Fletcher of the British Lichen Society has passed to us a substantial number of lichen records (see Figure 4, of Lasallia pustulata, found at few sites in West Sutherland). There is also a scatter of records of fungi, including some, such as recent ones of the bog jellydisc Ascocoryne turficola, of species rarely recorded.
Professor Xavier Lambin of Aberdeen University has recently made available the records of mammals, in particular water voles, gathered by himself and colleagues in the course of their research over the last 20+ years, including some very interesting recent work employing environmental DNA and trail cameras. The tally currently stands at 18 species, including mountain hare (Figure 5) and pine marten. There have been regular counts of birds at several sites on the estate, including some 13 years of a BTO Breeding Bird Survey, and many individual observations of species such as golden eagle, ptarmigan (Figure 6) and ring ouzel.
Records of reptiles and amphibians indicate that all six species native to Assynt breed on the hill. The West Sutherland Fisheries Trust have undertaken recent electrofishing surveys on juvenile salmon and brown trout. Other species of fish include arctic charr in Loch Assynt, a large area of which lies within the estate boundary, eels, three–spined sticklebacks and minnows. We shall be approaching anglers for information on the fishing in Loch Assynt.
Records of other groups of animals are at present scattered through the archives of the Field Club and its members, but include most of the butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies found in Assynt (see Figure 7 of nymph of common hawker), with a range of molluscs, spiders, beetles, bumblebees and other invertebrate groups.
In 2010 Gwen Richards carried out the Quinag Loch Survey, looking at eight sites on different rock types. The report of her survey contains records of 51 species of aquatic invertebrates from 10 groups, with voucher material of bivalve molluscs and caddisflies identified by national experts. Other aquatic organisms that have been studied in detail include desmid algae, by David Williamson, an international expert on this group.
There are records of higher plants and lichens from the sea shore on the northern edge of the estate, from Eilean a’Ghamhna east to Creag an Spardain, but we have nothing on other aspects of the intertidal marine life; something to explore in future.
Recent work has included visits, in the autumn of 2020, by Ian Evans and Gwen Richards, to eight previously under-worked 1km squares around the hill, using the higher plants as indicators of biodiversity. These are the subjects of a series of articles posted on the AFC website under the heading of the Quinag Wildlife Project, alongside the stories of other visits over the last five years.
The geology of the hill has a profound effect on its topography, vegetation and the plant, animal and other life it supports. Pete Harrison of the North West Highlands Geopark has provided a well-illustrated account of the rocks exposed at the surface, how they came to be where they are, and the part played by Quinag in geological research and teaching.
The influences of man on this landscape and its wildlife over several millennia are not so readily documented. Although there have been few permanent settlements within the bounds of the estate (there was one, long since abandoned, at Poll a’Ghamhna, NC2032), there are many signs of its use for summer grazing and crop growing, on scattered shielings, some in quite remote areas.
Gaelic place names
Gaelic place names may provide some clues to this usage and Gemma Smith of Glasgow University has compiled, from her current research, a gazetteer of these. Historian Malcolm Bangor-Jones has also prepared an in-depth account of the past ownership of the estate, the scattered structures and enclosures on it, such as walls and ditches, tracks, roads and shielings, and other aspects of its landscape history.
There are many other aspects of human interaction with this landscape that we hope to explore in time, including those by artists and photographers. The photographs accompanying this article are from a gallery we are assembling to document its appeal to a wide range of interest groups. Chris Puddephatt, a local photographer, has recently set up a Facebook page for contributions by visitors and locals, which is proving very popular (see Figure 8, of the Unapool Burn). It can be accessed at Friends of Quinag https://www.facebook.com/groups/376025833679065
Finally, there are elements of the current management of the estate, such as deer control and the regeneration of woodland, which have their roots in the ways it has been managed for many hundreds of years, for example by grazing, burning and ‘predator’ control, on which we hope to obtain useful information. Ardvreck Castle, less than a kilometre from the south-eastern corner of the estate was the site in the 1840s of the nest of the last pair of breeding ospreys in Assynt, and the species is finally re-establishing itself in the vicinity, with a pair on an artificial nest in 2020.
We realise that we are embarking on a substantial undertaking to document the story of this splendid hill, but we have made a start. We are grateful to all those who have contributed so far. If you have any information that you think might be useful, or know of anyone with an interest, please get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org).