Exploring Quinag: Atlantic Woodland at Creag an Spardain
When Chris Ferreira carried out his ground-breaking vegetation survey of North-West Sutherland in the early 1980s (Ferreira, 1995), he added to his enthusiastic evaluation of Quinag notes on five smaller sites of interest nearby. Creag an Spardain (his site 4.1.2) is one of these. It comprises the wooded gorge carrying the exit burn from Loch Unapool, the Allt Creag an Spardain, to the sea, and a further small area of woodland on the western sea-cliff at its mouth (map, photo 1).
The burn is the boundary between Quinag and Cnoc na Cairidh to its east, which is owned by Jim Sloane, so only the woodland and crags on its west side are, strictly speaking, on JMT land. However, the site includes all the gorge, between the 20-40m crags on its western edge and lower ones to the east. It houses one of the best examples of Atlantic Woodland in Assynt.
Ian had visited the area with Chris, Pat and Gordon Rothero on 24th April 1992, when Gordon recorded 136 species of bryophytes. He returned with Pat on 4th June 1997, when they noted some 17 rarer species of higher plants, but had not been back since. The 1km square containing the gorge (NC2232) was one of our target sites for 2023 fieldwork, but we did not get the chance to visit it until 31st August.
Approaching the gorge
We left the car at the entrance to a small track accessing recent peat diggings (NC221319) at 1030 hrs., walked up the track and across to a small crag at NC222320 (photo 2), where we started listing the higher plants of the JMT land. Turning north-east, we then plodded across an area of species-poor wet heath of a type familiar to us on the lower slopes of Quinag.
Some interest was provided by a small patch of the ‘lucky’ white variety of heather Calluna vulgaris, very conspicuous in a year in which the normal purplish form of this plant flowered profusely (photo 3). In bog pools there were the distinctive shoots of feathery bog moss Sphagnum cuspidatum, known to aficionados rather unkindly as ‘drowned kittens’ (photo 4). It is the ‘most aquatic of the British species’ and ‘normally found in very acidic habitats’.
When we reached the edge of the gorge (NC224324), the burn was clearly visible upstream (photo 5), but became buried in vegetation downstream (photo 6), as woodland took over.
Into the woodland
The woodland was rooted in steep boulder scree, often loose, well-vegetated, but with hidden cavities and occasional fallen trees, threaded by a faint deer path (photo 7). Overhead was a dense canopy, mainly of downy birch. All of which required careful negotiation.
A small burrow had been excavated in the scree in one place, the bedding in its mouth indicating that it had been dug by a badger (photo 8), and we wondered what they were finding to feed on in that area.
In places the going was easier (photo 9), with a tall crag along the western edge (photo 10) and areas with rounded carpets of mosses and liverworts covering the boulders (photo 11).
Dying trees (photo 12) supported the woody fruiting bodies of the tinder bracket Fomes fomentarius and clumps of sulphur tuft fungi Hypholoma fasciculare (photo 13). Really wet rocks alongside the burn were plated with the great scented liverwort Conocephalum cf. conicum (photo 14).
Even steeper bouldery slopes below the western crags provided us with more challenges (photo 15), but supported a large wych elm Ulmus glabra.
Just across the burn there was one of the largest stands of the beech fern Phegopteris connectilis we have ever seen (photo 16). Not far away Gwen came across a small stand of its rarer relative oak fern Gymnopteris dryopteris (photo 17), with tripinnate fronds on delicate stipes.
Further down the gorge
As we carefully navigated our way further down the gorge, holly began to appear in quantity (photo 18). The canopy was even denser here and the resultant micro-climate more humid, with bands of the tiny Wilson’s filmy fern Hymenophyllum wilsonii growing on vertical trunks (photos 19-20). This is unusual; it more usually occurs in bryophyte mats on boulders.
It was about this point that we realised, regretfully, that we might not be able to reach the mouth of the burn, and two members of the party had a rest to recoup energy (photo 21).
Turning back, we climbed up the side of the gorge in the one place where the western ramparts were breached, on the line of a tiny burn. We found a single seedling hazel on the way up, but never located its source (probably further down the valley).
More intriguing, however, was a bumblebees’ nest excavated by badgers (photo 22). They had left fragments of the larval cells (photo 23) and a few active, but presumably puzzled, adults investigating the ruins of their home. Gwen did get a good look at one, enabling her to identify them as the broken-belted bumblebee Bombus soroeensis.
Ian also spotted on the edge of the nest cavity a huge keeled slug (photo 24), with a striking two-toned sole (photo 25), which he was later able to confirm as the ash grey slug Limax cinereoniger. This species, which can grow to a length of 150+mm, is associated with ancient woodland; there are just a few scattered records from Assynt.
Out of the gorge
Having scrambled out of the valley, literally on our hands and knees, we emerged onto horizontal ground, where we had a well-earned tea break. There was a good view to the north, over Loch a’ Chairn Bhain, towards the bridge over the narrows (photo 26), with aspens in the foreground, along the top of the crags.
We then worked north-west until we reached a tributary of the main burn, in an area that seemed to be distinctly base-rich, with black bog-rush and other typical species.
An outcrop at the edge of the tributary (NC220326), was plastered with lichens, and had a distinct look of the mafic dyke which is shown on the geological map running down the gorge. One of these lichens resembled old grey paint, smooth at a distance, but minutely cracked close-up (photos 27-28). We sent the photos to Tony Fletcher but, as is often the case, he was unable to provide a definite name without microscopic examination. However, he did suggest Miriquidica leucophaea, an upland species found ‘on well-lit siliceous rocks, especially if metal-rich’.
At this point, we turned back up the tributary burn, which continued to provide scattered signs of base-enrichment, such as pale butterwort Pinguicula lusitanica, presumably from the gneiss itself.
The day had a final drama in store. A few yards from the car we watched, helpless, as a female Scotch Argus butterfly flew straight into the orb web of the spider Larinioides cornutus. It was pounced upon by the female spider, which had been lurking in a refuge on a nearby rush stem. She made short work of it, injecting venom which killed it within a couple of minutes (photos 29-30).
Our failure to reach the mouth of the gorge was frustrating, since some interesting rarities have been recorded there, together with an isolated oak tree. We had, nevertheless, logged 100 species, and got to know what must be one of the best areas of woodland on Quinag.
Ferreira, R.E.C., 1995. Vegetation Survey of North West Sutherland. Unpublished report for Scottish Natural Heritage. 4 vols.
Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards
All photos by Gwen Richards