Exploring Quinag: Bealach Leireag

December 29th 2021

Exploring Quinag: Bealach Leireag

After a fortnight away from Assynt, we decided on 8th September 2021 to look at some higher ground on Quinag.  Our target was Bealach Leireag, the pass on the old track between Tumore and Glenleraig (NC1928), which is shown in John Home’s Survey of 1774, but probably improved in the 19th century.  A river, the Abhainn Gleann Leireag, rises above the Bealach, at the southern end of the ‘skirts’ of scree which extend for 3km along the hill from Sail Ghorm, then flows north down the glen.

We left the car just west of Tumore and started up the track.  Although sign-posted, its line is obscured lower down by gorse and other scrub, with small clumps of larger trees.  A little way up Gwen found an adult Bordered Beauty Epione repandaria (photo 1), an attractive moth that is not normally day-flying.  NBN shows just two previous records in Assynt, from moth traps at Glendarroch and Nedd.

After a leisurely coffee break, looking back over Loch Assynt (photo 2), we continued climbing the track, here out in the open and well-defined (photo 3), until we passed through the gate in the JMT boundary fence, just south of the Bealach.

Fertile watercourse

We started recording on a loop of the river, which curls back on itself (photo 4), up to where it splashes down a small waterfall (photo 5).  This loop, about 100m long, lies in the 1km square to the south of our main target area, but looked productive. So it was; we managed to find, in an hour, 67 species of higher plants, albeit mostly identified from their leaves.

A narrow band of grassland along the watercourse, together with lush vegetation beside the waterfall, contributed two-thirds of the records. This stretch houses a colony of water voles. Its relative fertility, and appeal to them, may be because it runs along the boundary between the Lewisian gneiss to the west and Torridonian sandstones to the east, perhaps with some underlying gravel.

Animal life in this area included the larva of a large sawfly Abia sericea on a head of devil’s-bit scabious Succisa pratensis (photo 6), a fine dark-brown female orb-web spider Araneus diadematus (7) and the first of several frogs.  Much to our surprise we also came across the fresh carcase of a red deer hind, in a hole amongst large boulders at the foot of the waterfall (photo 8).  Sadly, it must have lost its footing on the slippery rocks, fallen and broken its neck.

Headwaters

Having negotiated, with care, the wet sandstone crags beside the waterfall, we continued up the watercourse to its source at the foot of the boulder scree stretching along the slope to the north. We were now in the target 1km square (NC1928) and, after lunch, we started recording all over again.

Soon afterwards, we came across a patch of the vivid yellow spore-bearing bodies or anthelia of the slime mould known as flowers of tan Fuligo septica (photos 9-10), because of a historical association with oak bark stacked for tanning.  This is the largest of the British slime moulds, which are properly not moulds (fungi) but protozoans, with a mobile amoeboid phase in their life-histories.

The vegetation in this area was for the most part a mosaic of wet heath and mire with a predictable plant list. However, variety was provided, as before, by a suite of grassland species along the watercourse, such as cuckoo-flower Cardamine pratensis, ribwort plantain Plantago lanceolata, self-heal Prunella vulgaris and white clover Trifolium repens. We wonder if some of these may be relics from the days when this ground was heavily grazed by sheep.

Scree stripes

Working our way slowly uphill over quite rugged ground, we had a tea break at the foot of one of the gulleyed stripes of scree (photo 11) that extend down steep rocky slopes from the foot of Quinag’s vertical, fissured, sandstone crags, which are 100m high in places.

The scree was not richly vegetated, but did add species such as alpine lady’s-mantle Alchemilla alpina (photo 12), mountain everlasting Antennaria dioica, cowberry Vaccinium vitis-idaea and, more surprisingly, wild thyme Thymus polytrichus, which is usually associated with less acid rocks. There was also a tiny rowan seedling, one of only four trees seen all day, the others being single small examples of downy birch, eared and grey willow. Browsing deer are presumably preventing further regeneration of trees.

Afterwards, Gwen climbed with Jess up one of the stripes, obtaining striking views of sandstone pinnacles wreathed in cloud (photo 13), Loch an Leothaid in Gleann Leireag (photo 14) to the north, and Suilven (photo 15) to the south. They reached a height of 410m (1366ft), some 315m (1033ft) above the road.

On her return we turned back, dropping down across boggy ground to the track, took a quick look at a trackside pool, and then made our way down to the road. In three hours we logged some 83 species of higher plants from the northern square (NC1928).

Other life

Animals, besides those already mentioned, included fox moth larvae, in at least seven places, and single larvae of light knotgrass and white ermine moths. Winged ants were issuing in a nuptial flight from under rocks at our lunch spot, later identified by Murdo Macdonald as the widespread species Myrmica ruginodis; September is quite late for this event. It was also late in the year for birds and none were seen or heard.

Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards

 

 

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