Cnocnaneach: more Atlantic Rainforest

June 30th 2024

Cnocnaneach: more Atlantic Rainforest

On Saturday 18th May 2024, we joined a well-attended tree planting event organized by the Assynt Foundation on the south-western shore of Loch Druim Suardalain (NC1121).  It was on the site of Claire’s Wood, an area on both sides of the track leading up to the derelict house at Cnocnaneach (NC108210) that is part of a large planting scheme south of the loch.

Our particular interest was in the wooded burn valley, now fenced against both sheep and deer, that runs down from near the house, below the track (map, photo 1).  It contains another good example of local Atlantic Rainforest.

Earlier visit

We last visited the valley on 21st March 2020.  The notes and photographs made on that occasion complement those from this one, so we have incorporated them in this account.  It was much easier to assess the nature and character of the tree cover on the first visit, but the second one provided us with more information on the ground flora.

In 2020, we worked our way up the valley, from a level, marshy section close to the loch, containing some old walls (photo 2), into quite a steep-sided gorge (photo 3).  We were particularly impressed by the size and age of many of the trees, including a couple of large sprawling grey willows (photo 4) and ancient downy birches.  The latter included several that had blown down, but refused to die (photo 5), regenerating new stems from their horizontal trunks (‘phoenix trees’).

Boulders in this lower section were covered with mats of bryophytes, interspersed in places with Wilson’s filmy-fern (photos 6-7).   

At the foot of the gorge there was a huge multi-stemmed wych elm (photo 8) and, on its lip, some large old hazels covered in the large rainforest lichen tree lungwort Lobaria pulmonaria (photo 9).

However, one small tree, on the upper edge of a steep section of the gorge (NC110212), puzzled us.  It had a neat profile and bronzy bark (photo 10).  We guessed that it might be a species of Prunus, but without leaves or flowers we were unable to put a definite name to it.

Evidence of mammals

In open areas there were at least two badger setts (photo 11), with nearby fresh dung-pits (photo 12) indicating their current occupation.  Such obvious setts are unusual in Assynt; many of them are sited in very rocky places, or hidden under bracken.

Other evidence of local mammals was provided by hazel nuts that had been opened, typically untidily, by wood mice (photos 13-14).  The shells of some old nuts had black patches of a fungus (photo 15), later identified by Bruce Ing as Phomopsis revellens, the asexual form (anamorph) of one of the ascomycete or cup fungi Diaporthe revellens, specific to this micro-habitat.

A final photograph from this earlier visit (photo 16) shows the start of the woodland, where the burn enters the upper part of the gorge (and trees escape browsing).

Later visit

In 2024, we were scoping the tree cover and other features for a Rapid Rainforest Assessment coordinated by Andy Summers.  In the event, a marked lack of tree regeneration, resulting from heavy browsing (prior to the recent completion of the deer fence), somewhat depressed the score.  However hazel stools were already beginning to sprout new shoots at their bases, and old stems bore a rich lichen flora (photo 17), indicating that, given time to recover, this woodland could well score much higher in the future.

This visit, later in the year, solved the mystery of the small tree.  Our suspicions were confirmed; it was a fine example of bird cherry P. padus, in full flower (photos 18-19), with several more, equally conspicuous but less accessible, in the gorge (photo 20).  These trees were not noted in fieldwork for the Flora of Assynt, and constitute a new tetrad record.    

In the damper lower parts of the valley there was a rich woodland ground flora, including common cow-wheat, greater stitchwort, opposite-leaved golden-saxifrage, primrose and wood anemone.

On drier higher ground, there were carpets of bluebells in full flower, both below and above the old track (photos 21-22). The upper slopes are underlain by deep deposits of gravelly glacial till, which may account for their abundance.  It is unusual to see so many bluebells in Assynt outwith woodland, and not overtopped by bracken.

Casual insect records included a large red damselfly Pyrrhosoma nymphula and a red admiral butterfly.

Ian M. Evans and Gwen Richards

Photos by authors; 2-16 taken in March 2020; 17-22 taken in May 2024.

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