Loch Culag and the Culag River: a spring walk

April 23rd 2022

Loch Culag and the Culag River: a spring walk

It is easy to overlook the potential interest of familiar parts of our landscape.  An example is Loch Culag, on the coast road south of Lochinver (NC0921), which we must have driven past hundreds of times.  

Sunday 27th March 2022 was forecast as sunny and warm, so we decided to explore the area south of the loch, and then up the Culag River (map, photo 1).  Having parked at Woodside, we walked up the hill to the south, and then took an old path that runs along the base of Creag na Clach Airigh (crag of the village shieling).  It was well trodden by red deer and wound its way uphill through a series of stony flushes.  These housed succulent young rosettes of yellow saxifrage, indicating base enrichment from the underlying gneiss.  

Woodland

The path became fainter after a while and we then followed a deer track over a boggy shelf below the high crag.  A coffee stop on a knoll (NC097212) gave panoramic views over Loch Culag (photo 2), with the Primary School left foreground and parts of Lochinver in the distance (photo 3).  An old sheep fank lay beside a bay at the foot of the hill (photo 4), and a dot by a distant island later resolved itself into a dabchick.  

We then dropped down through mature downy birch-rowan woodland (photo 5) to the course of a small burn which flows into the loch.   The woodland contained much fallen dead wood, smothered with bryophytes and promising a rich invertebrate fauna.  There were scattered hazels, indicating deeper, fertile soils, as did the numerous primrose rosettes, some just coming into flower.

Rising through the birches were the columnar trunks of three magnificent aspens, up to 60cm in diameter (photo 6).  They were the outliers of a group of some ten such trees, running down from another crag.  The trunks were dark and rugged, but branches in the high spreading crowns had the characteristic shiny olive bark.  

The base of one tree bore a large patch of the plum-fruited felt lichen Degelia plumbea, typical of our Atlantic woodlands (photo 7), and fallen branches were stained coppery-green by green elfcup fungus Chlorociboria aeruginascensosum.  A boulder nearby was capped with Wilson’s filmy-fern, another Atlantic woodland species.  

Loch-side

Threading our way down to the edge of the loch, we went over to look at the well-built sheep fank (photo 8) which had a deep concrete dipping trough.  Presumably it was 19th century;  we wondered when it had last been used.  

More deer paths took us along the eastern edge of the loch, the waters of which were unusually low after several weeks with little rain (following what had felt like a continuously wet winter).  Just before the mouth of the River, a shallow backwater contained the remains of two male toads, which had been predated, perhaps by an otter.  Otters have the skill to remove toad skins, which are beset with poison glands.  

Not far away was a small well-vegetated pool (photo 9), with frog spawn and an adult palmate newt, completing the tally of our local amphibians.  As we left the area, two common snipe took off from a boggy patch, jinking away with their characteristic harsh cry.

Up the river

We then struck up the southern bank of the River, which was running very quietly around beds of gravel and small rocks.  When in spate it must look very different, since on one high-banked bend, the current had cast up huge chunks of soil and turf.  We found a dry tump above the watercourse for a leisurely lunch looking down the river (photo 10), with meadow pipits doing their song flights, trout rising, a chaffinch calling from a thicket to the north and two buzzards mewing overhead.  The only downside was that heather around the tump showed signs of fairly recent burning. 

Shortly after lunch, we passed the remains of a long-derelict footbridge, which is still marked on the O.S. map (photo 11). It was just shreds of wire hanging from two softwood uprights, which had been charred by fire.  A little further up the river there was a solitary old alder (photo 12), a waterside tree that was surprisingly scarce in many parts of Assynt, although much planted recently.  

Further upstream

The watercourse became increasingly rocky as we walked up it (photo 13). We were surprised to find that the river here cuts its way through a small gorge, of which there is no indication on the map.  As we emerged from the gorge, our attention was caught by two grey wagtails flitting about on the sandy banks of shallows immediately upstream, with their long tails, lovely yellow bellies and orange legs.  

Closer inspection of the shallows (photo 14), which were only 10-15cm deep, revealed two well-camouflaged pairs of mating toads (photo 15), with one pair actually spawning, numerous strings of spawn (photo 16) and a couple of spare males.  We don’t often see spawn, since toads usually choose much deeper water.  

The river continued upstream with gravelly margins, shallows and occasional deeper pools (photo 17).  It was so shallow in places that we had good views of the vegetation anchored to its bottom.  There were occasional tufts of a pale green stonewort, later identified as the widespread Chara virgata, and what looked like beds of reddish-orange string (photo 18).  This was the slender, much-branched, aquatic form of bulbous rush, quite unlike the compact plants of its terrestrial counterpart, with the swollen leaf bases from which its gets its name.  Since the aquatic form does not appear to flower, you have to recognise it by its ‘jizz’. 

Our route then took us through some very unfriendly boggy ground dominated by tussocks of purple moor-grass and wiry plants of bog myrtle. We were well pleased to reach the pedestrian bridge on the track to Cnocnaneach, happily now repaired (photo19).  Whilst leaning on its rails, we caught sight of a female goosander on Loch Druim Suardalain, which rose off the water and flew over our heads. 

Turning back

We then took the track and road westwards, enlivened by a brief sighting of a cock stonechat, until we could cut across boggy ground back to the edge of Loch Culag, with its unusually wide drawdown zone (photo 20).  After a final sit in the sunshine on the edge of the loch, we forded the Culag River just where it starts to plunge down its final rocky section to the sea (normally impossible), and walked back along the road to the car.  In some five hours we had covered about 4km.

It had been a great day, in warm spring sunshine, over ground in bright winter colours, in an area we had never before visited.  It isn’t pristine country, and the map accompanying Home’s Survey of 1774 shows much more woodland up the course of the Culag River than occurs today.  However, given a necessary reduction in deer numbers, and a complete ban on the pointless and very destructive practice of burning, the area has great potential for the natural regeneration of a rich mosaic of heath, bog and native broad-leaved woodland.

 

Ian M.Evans and Gwen Richards

P.S.  On later consulting Chris Ferreira’s comprehensive Vegetation Survey of North West Sutherland (1995), we found a reference, under site 4.5.7 Loch Culag Woodland, to ‘fine specimens of aspen within the birch-rowan woodland’ and ‘some good quality ground vegetation’, which will bear a repeat visit later in the year.  As so often, he had been there before us, albeit some forty years ago. 

 

 

 

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