In early June I headed out to Glen Cannich for the day, to visit the large aspen stand I found there last year, and which I’ve blogged about before. I’d been there in May with my colleague Mick to survey the aspens and had noticed there were a lot of bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) showing their buds, so I’d estimated this would be about the right time to catch them at the peak of their flowering.
When I arrived in the glen, it was a bright, sunny day with virtually no clouds in the sky, which meant that the light would not be very good for photography in the gorge where the aspens (Populus tremula) are growing. The narrow confines of the gorge would create areas of deep shade that would contrast with patches of bright sunlight, making it difficult to get even illumination in any photographs.
As the weather forecast was for it to cloud over in the afternoon, I chose to spend the early part of the day a little further up in the glen, where there’s a group of old Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) growing on a steep rock face. I’d looked at them from across the river many times before, but had never climbed up to them, so I decided to take the opportunity to go there now.
To get there I had to cross the river, and I had spotted a place where there’s a ford for 4 x 4 vehicles to get across. I found that by stepping carefully I was able to cross without getting my feet wet. A few clouds had appeared already in the sky, earlier than expected, and I pondered whether to abandon my plans to visit the pines and head straight for the aspens. However, I opted to keep going, assuming that I’d have time to do both during the day.
There’s a still section of water just upstream from the ford, with some perfect reflections in it, so I stopped briefly to enjoy the tranquility before heading up through the birchwood that leads up to the pines on the higher ground. I’d only walked for a few minutes in amongst the birches when I spotted an area with a patch of bluebells growing in a small clearing amongst the trees.
The intermittent cloud cover and lack of wind provided a good opportunity to do some photography of the bluebells, so I ended up spending a couple of hours at this spot!
It’s been a particularly good year for bluebells this year in the north of Scotland, even though the flowering is a bit later than usual, because of the late spring we’ve had. However, my general observation over the years is that bluebells seem to be spreading and becoming more abundant in our region, year after year.
I don’t know if this is a consequence of global warming or not, but there are certainly many more bluebell patches than say 10 or 15 years ago. The most dramatic example of this is on West Affric, where a small group of bluebells are growing inside a stock-fenced exclosure we put up around an over-grazed eared willow bush (Salix aurita), to help it regenerate. Bluebells began flowering there about 7 years after the fence went up, and by 2012, over a 100 bluebells were flowering in this tiny area, over 20 kilometres form the next nearest population of bluebells!
Leaving the bluebell patch behind, I continued walking uphill through the birchwood, and stopped again soon, when I spotted a nice cluster of wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) growing on the trunk of a downy birch tree (Betula pubescens).
Nearby, my eye was drawn by some movement on the ground, and when I looked closely I saw it was a spider that was scurrying across the moss and other vegetation underfoot. Remarkably, it was a spider that I had only just learned to recognise the previous month, during my last visit to Glen Cannich with Mick. I’d seen one of these spiders then, and as it looked unfamiliar to me, I sent it off to a spider expert, who told me it’s the nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis). It’s one of the easiest spiders to recognise, as it has a white line down the middle of the cephalothorax (the upper part of its body), and gets its common name from the fact that the female spins an umbrella-shaped web where she lays her eggs and where the spiderlings remain for a while after hatching. I was very pleased therefore to see the spider again now and recognise it immediately this time.
Continuing upwards, the slope became very steep as I approached the Scots pines, which must have survived there because they are relatively inaccessible to deer (and people!). Many of them were quite short, because they were growing out of the rocks, and one in particular had a remarkable contorted shape.
Just above the pines, there’s the summit of a small hill, and when I reached the top of that, there were some good views all around. However, my attention was drawn to the sad sight of heavily-browsed birch seedlings in amongst the heather there.
Overgrazing like this is what is preventing the return of the Caledonian Forest to more of the Highlands, and there were plenty of these stunted birches in this area on top of the hill.
As I looked around I could see the tell tale signs of how much forest there should be there, as the line of various watercourses coming down the hillsides from higher up were all indicated by the presence of trees growing along them. The generally steeper ground beside those burns means that they are less accessible to red deer (Cervus elaphus), and this is what enables remnants of woodland to cling on there.
If the deer numbers were reduced in this part of Glen Cannich, the forest would expand again by itself, as the overgrazed seedlings would be free to grow. In some cases they have extensive root systems, grown over many years, but may only be a few inches high above ground, because of the deer pressure. Once that is relieved, the seedlings can grow quite quickly, and birch in particular, being a pioneer species that produces large amounts of seeds, is able to respond rapidly.
Regeneration of that area in Glen Cannich will likely have to wait for a change of ownership, so after having had a good look around, I headed back downhill again, so that I could get to the aspen stand before the end of the day.
There was some mist drifting through the birchwood as I descended, and it added a magical atmosphere to the woodland, which I appreciated all the more after having seen the stunted and overgrazed seedlings higher up.
I stopped at one point on the way down, near the contorted pine, as there were a lot of chickweed wintergreen plants (Trientalis europaea) in flower there.
As I neared the bottom of the hill and a clearing in the birchwood, close to the river, the sun came out very briefly, in amongst some rather dark and dramatic-looking clouds. The trees were illuminated for a few moments, standing out in bright contrast to the deep shadows on the other side of the glen. I just had time to take a single photograph before the sun vanished again, but it provided one of the most dramatic images from the day.
Crossing the river, I returned to my car and drove down the glen to where a footpath leads across a small bridge and downstream towards the large aspen stand in the gorge, which had been my original destination for the day. By this time it was 7 pm (!), but because of the long hours of daylight in northern Scotland as we approach the summer solstice, there was still plenty of opportunity to see, and photograph, the aspens and bluebells. It’s about a kilometre downstream from the bridge to the gorge, and along the way I stopped briefly to photograph a nice cluster of bluebells that were growing near an alder tree (Alnus glutinosa) at the edge of the river. Some bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) was coming up through the bluebells, and in another couple of week’s time it would be a much tougher walk from the bridge down to the gorge, as the route is covered in dense bracken in summer, growing taller than me.
However, in early June, it was still easy going as the bracken hadn’t reached its full height yet, and I made good time in reaching the large aspen stand. When I’d been out with Mick a couple of weeks previously, he estimated there were about 325 aspens in the stand, making it probably the largest one we know of in our whole Project Area. There’s a huge aspen in the stand, which we measured as being 23 metres tall and having a circumference at breast height of 2.70 metres.
According to one expert on aspens, an individual tree gains 1 cm of girth for each year of growth, so that potentially means this tree is 270 years old! When I first found this tree, the name ‘clone mother’ came into my head for it, as it almost certainly is the parent of many of the other trees in the stand. Aspen reproduces rarely by seed, and instead young trees grow off the root system of an existing tree. In this way, many separate trunks are actually all connected underground by their roots, forming a natural clone, as it is known. These are all a single organism, and will come into leaf at the same time as each other in the spring, and will also change the colour of their leaves simultaneously in the autumn. Many of the trunks in this stand all looked to be of a similar age to each other, so Mick and I had hypothesised that some event had enabled many young suckers to grow successfully at some point in the past – most likely when the land nearby had been fenced for the establishment of forestry plantations.
As I wandered amongst the aspen trees now, I had to be careful not to step on the bluebells as there were so many of them. I’d never been in an aspen stand with bluebells in it before …
I took as many photographs as I could before the light faded too much, and then headed back to my car. It was 10.30 pm by that stage, and I still had about an hour and a half”s drive to get back home, so it was a late day for me. However, it had been well worth it, to spend so much time amongst the beauty of the bluebells in Glen Cannich.