Exploring Quinag:  A’Chairidh

January 6th 2024

Exploring Quinag:  A’Chairidh

In the spring of 2023, the John Muir Trust announced that they had purchased a 45acre site south-west of Kylesku, with ten A-frame holiday lodges, as an addition to their Quinag estate (photo 1).  

This land is situated at the eastern end of Loch a’Chairn Bhain and extends from Lochan Dubh, on the roadside in the north, to the Allt na Cairidh burn, in the south.  Cairidh/Chairidh is defined in Edward Dwelly’s Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary (1901-1911) as a ‘mound or wall thrown across the estuary of a river, stream or arm of the sea to catch fish’.  We have yet to locate further details of this structure and its history.  

Although a relatively small area, this acquisition does add about half a kilometre of coast to the JMT Quinag estate, and we made a preliminary listing of its plant and animal life on 29th May. 

Our survey was complicated by the fact that the site extends across two 1km squares, so we concentrated on the major part in NC2233 to the north, just listing additions and less common species from NC2232 to the south (map, photo 2).  In the event, the latter area may be the more interesting.  

Road verges and woodland

We parked, by prior arrangement, at the lodges, and then set off down the access road to Lochan Dubh and the adjacent woodland. There was a cold wind, but it was also midgy, an unusual coincidence. 

The mown or close-grazed verges of the access road provided us with a good range of species typical of such grassland, including fairy flax Linum catharticum and wild thyme Thymus polytrichus.  The latter bore the hairy galls of the mite Aceria thomasi, and roadside rock the orb web of the so-called garden spider Araneus diadematus, which is common on such outcrops.

Downy-leaved plants of soft lady’s-mantle Alchemilla mollis were locally abundant on the verges, as elsewhere around Kylesku; it is an aggressive garden escapee originally imported from the Carpathians.  A stonechat was ‘ticking’ nearby and a common heath moth flying.

The roadside woodland was dominated by downy birch, with occasional rowans and a reasonable ground flora for its presumably fairly acid soils, including wood soft-grass Holcus mollis, bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta, primrose Primula vulgaris and wild strawberry Fragaria vesca.  A damp area at its foot also harboured beech fern Phegopteris connectilis, valerian Valeriana officinalis and an example of the widespread large blue-black dung beetle Anoplotrupes stercorosus.

One of the downy birches bore the huge twiggy galls or ‘witches brooms’ of the fungus Taphrina betulina, and an ailing tree the white brackets of the birch polypore Piptoporus betulinus.  A willow warbler was singing from the cover of the wood. 

Lochan

A roadside ditch feeds the south-east corner of the lochan and at its edge we found a land-phase palmate newt and three toads.  The lochan is a known toad breeding site, with frequent casualties during their spring migration across the busy A894, so we were not surprised to find large numbers of toad tadpoles in the shallows.  

The western end of the lochan (photo 3) is dominated by the bright green stems of water horsetail Equisetum fluviatile, but also contains a large variety of other aquatics. These include floating club-rush Eleogiton fluitans, the aquatic form of bulbous rush Juncus bulbosus aquaticus, shoreweed Littorella uniflora, water lobelia Lobelia dortmanna, white water-lily Nymphaea alba, broad-leaved pondweed Potamogeton natans and lesser bladderwort Utricularia minor.  A stonewort was also collected for later microscoping; it proved to be the commonest species locally, Chara virgata.  A herring gull was idling on the surface of the water. 

We then made our way back up the access track, finding three different orchids in rocky grassland not far from the lodges.  They were heath spotted-orchid Dactylorhiza maculata, northern marsh-orchid D. purpurella and several fine spikes of an intermediate form, with deeply-spotted leaves (photo 4), which we identified as the hybrid between these two, D. x formosa.  Given the continuing chilly wind, we then adjourned to the car for lunch, having notched up some 90 species.

Over to the valley of the Allt na Cairidh

After lunch we made our way south-west across moorland on quite a steep slope above sea-cliffs.  Downy birch was regenerating well, with young trees up to a metre high, despite the obvious signs of red deer we had come across in the morning.  

The moorland was miry in places, with indicators of some base-enrichment, including dioecious sedge Carex dioica and black bog-rush Schoenus nigricans.  

Ian had not visited this area since September 2004 and had forgotten that there is a small but tricky crag along the north-east side of the valley of the Allt na Cairidh (as well as a huge wooded one opposite it, on the Creag Mhor na Cairidh).  However, we did find a way down (at NC22713297) and set about exploring the lower part of the burn as far as the sea (photo 5), with a green-veined white flying in the valley bottom.  Nearby the leaves of meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria were streaked with the bright orange galls of the rust fungus Triphragmium ulmariae.  

Recording with some care, since we were straddling a gridline and close to the boundary of the JMT ground, which runs along the burn, we were soon able to make substantial additions to the plant list for the property.  

Near the tide line

Saltmarsh and piles of wrack above the tideline provided a good variety of maritime species, including thrift Armeria maritima, orache Atriplex sp., scurvygrass Cochlearia officinalis, sea-milkwort Glaux maritima, saltmarsh rush Juncus gerardii, buck’s-horn plantain Plantago coronopus, common saltmarsh-grass Puccinellia maritima, skullcap Scutellaria galericulata and sea arrowgrass Triglochin maritima.  There was also one scraggy bush of hazel on a crag above the saltmarsh. 

Gwen noticed on rocks near the mouth of the shallow burn some stony caddis-fly cases, possibly Agapetus sp. (photo 6) and, flying above them, tiny black caddis-flies (photo 7), one of which was collected.  Dr Ian Wallace, the national expert on this group, identified material from Gwen’s Quinag Loch Survey (2010), so we sent it off to him.  He identified it as a ‘very, very, small male’ of Agapetus fuscipes form micropetus, the first record from 10km square NC23.  

Not far away Gwen also noticed a heath bumblebee Bombus jonellus on a flowering head of dandelion Taraxacum sp. 

Up the burn

We then re-traced our steps up the valley, to a point where Ian and Jess remained to make a leisurely inspection of the grassy floor of the valley (photo 8), finding pignut Conopodium majus and more bluebells and wood soft-grass. 

Meanwhile, Gwen battled her way up a deer path through well-vegetated boulders on the JMT side of the burn (photo 9) to the south-eastern corner of their land.  There was black spleenwort Asplenium adiantum-nigrum on a small crag (photo 10), and a further hazel and some 15 small trees of aspen a little further on.

Across to the road

On her return, we enjoyed a good long tea break, then returned to the spot where we could get out of the valley, and found our way back to the road, with a fleeting glimpse of a common lizard on the way.  

Above us we could see what appeared to be an old oak tree at the eastern end of a crag protected by large boulder scree (photo 11), but decided to leave that area for another visit.  

Conspicuous sheep tracks led us, conveniently, to an informal parking area off the road at NC230330, where visitors often pull in.  We were outwith the JMT property, but did note, nevertheless, a couple of plants of an unfamiliar yellow-flowered plant.  A small sample enabled us to name this later as imperforate St. John’s-wort Hypericum maculatum, apparently ‘new’ to both Assynt and the North-west Highlands.  It had probably arrived on vehicle tyres, but was worth logging nevertheless. 

Back to the start and a reckoning up

We then plodded back along the western verge of the busy A894, with Jess on the lead, adding a final few species to the tally from its verges and rocky banks.  

They included, interestingly, the basiphilous subspecies of maidenhair spleenwort Asplenium trichomanes quadrivalens, common polypody Polypodium vulgare and another basiphile, yellow saxifrage Saxifraga aizoides.  

The day’s tally, after some five hours, was 131 species of higher plants, a mammal, three birds, a reptile, two amphibians, a butterfly, a moth, a beetle, a bumblebee, a caddis-fly, a spider, two fungi and three plant galls.  A reasonable start to logging its natural history interest?  

Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards

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