Exploring Quinag: Allt na Saobhaidh Moire

January 11th 2022

Exploring Quinag: Allt na Saobhaidh Moire

At the foot of the eastern flank of Sail Gharbh (NC218292) is a hollow called Saobhaidh Mhor (large fox den).  It is the source of a burn, the Allt na Saobhaidh Moire, which flows north for over 2km, eventually feeding into Loch Airigh na Beinne.  It runs through a 1km square (NC2229), which was the target on our final survey visit to Quinag during 2021, on 16th October (map, photo 1).  

We started at the bridge carrying the A894 over the Unapool Burn and walked up the burn to the western end of Loch nan Eun (bird loch), where we started recording (photo 2).   This is greenshank territory earlier in the year, but they were long gone.  Identifying the vegetation on the loch margins was not helped by the high water level, resulting from some six inches of rain that had already fallen in October (and continued to do so through the rest of that month and November).  We persevered, however, before cutting across half a kilometre of plodgy wet heath to the course of the burn (NC224299) and then following it upstream (photo 3).  

Burn and falls

Many of the burns running off Quinag are flanked by narrow corridors of comparatively species-rich grassland, whose fertility probably derives either from deposits of glacial debris which they cut through (and redistribute), or mineral-rich springs on the Lewisian gneiss.  Such corridors are often inhabited by water voles, which accentuate their fertility.  The Allt na Saobhaidh Moire rises on Torridonian sandstones, and flows over them for more than a kilometre, and there was a conspicuous absence of such grassland in the section we traversed.  Water vole territories have been mapped above and below it, but we came across no signs of them.  

We stopped for lunch at the foot of a striking ladder of falls over stepped sandstone strata (photo 4), the upper part of which was the subject, on 1st April, of one of Chris Puddephatt’s splendid collection of landscape photographs on Quinag (photo 5).  Seated out of the wind on a heathery slope, our views towards distant hills in the north were devoid of any sign of man’s presence on the planet, which was refreshing.  By this time we had logged 46 species of higher plants, including just one, lesser clubmoss Selaginella selaginoides, which indicates any degree of base-richness. Again, a reflection of the underlying sandstone bedrock.  

Lochan

After lunch we back-tracked a short distance to pick up a tributary burn which drains quite a large un-named lochan (photo 6, NC226294).  This is flanked by a dark sandstone crag along its western shore and contains a small wooded island.  To reach the crag we had to negotiate an area of heavily-vegetated tumbled boulders with yawning cavities, requiring careful navigation, following a rough path made by red deer.  

This area added some ferns, several straggly rowans and a single downy birch to our list.  The crag itself (photo 7) was dripping with water in places and looked rather dour, but in crevices we found a single holly bush and, more surprisingly, a tiny aspen about 30cm high.  

Although aspens are not uncommon on crags in Assynt, where they escape browsing and often sucker extensively, this one must have arisen from wind-blown seed.  Any potential seed source is quite far away but, more to the point, no-one has seen fertile seed on female aspen trees anywhere in Assynt for several decades.  So, this tree, although small, may be quite old.  Below the crag, on the edge of deep water, there was one further tree, a reasonably-sized grey willow Salix cinerea.  

Following the southern side of the lochan, we were able to take a closer look, through binoculars, at the island, which bore single examples of downy birch, rowan and what is probably another grey willow (photo 8).  

Unapool Burn and bog pools

We then cut across country to a short stretch of the Unapool Burn which intersects the south-east corner of our target square (NC229291).  This did have some scraps of grassland on its winding course, which topped up the higher plant total to 61 species. 

After turning back, it took us nearly an hour, dodging round a series of bog pools (NC232292), across the eastern end of Loch nan Eun and back along the Unapool Burn, to reach the road.  Gwen sampled three sets of these bog pools in her Quinag Lochs Project in July and August 2010 (Richards, 2012, pp.40-58).  Amongst her finds were palmate newts, six of the ten species of dragonflies and damselflies found in Assynt and a variety of other freshwater invertebrates.  So this area, which was not looking very prepossessing under darkening skies in mid-October, is not without animal life.  

Two of the more interesting aspects of this visit were negatives: the lack of grassland along the Allt na Saobhaidh Moire and the paucity of trees.  Trees of at least six species have colonised the area (eared willow occurs along the burn), but they only survive where quirks of local topography prevent browsing by red deer.  Ready access to Quinag by deer from neighbouring sporting estates, just over a kilometre to the east, must be a significant factor in the continuing failure of native woodland to regenerate itself here.  

Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards 

 

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