The Barrach Wood is a small native Caledonian Forest pinewood remnant at Cougie, to the south of Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin in Glen Affric, in the upper part of the River Glass catchment. As such, it is located in between Glen Affric and Glenmoriston, to the northwest of Dundreggan. Despite its proximity to one of the places I spend the most time in – Glen Affic – and the fact that I’ve passed it by at various times over the years, I’d never actually taken the time to explore the Barrach Wood before.
When I went out there for a day in late November therefore it was with some excitement and expectancy at the thought of exploring this area of native pinewood for the first time. I’d actually been on my way to visit the Barrach Wood a couple of weeks before this, but as so often happens I stopped along the way, in that case in a very small area of pinewood about a kilometre before the Barrach Wood itself, and had ended up spending the whole day there. This I time I resisted the temptation to stop along the way, driving instead to the closest point to the Wood itself, and was immediately rewarded by the appearance of a bright rainbow in the sky, directly over some of the old ‘granny’ Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) there. This affectionate name is applied to the largest, mature Scots pines, especially those which have multiple trunks, in recognition of their individual character and unique growth forms.
In fact, I was just setting up the camera on my tripod to photograph some lichens growing on a rock at the edge of the wood when the rainbow appeared, so I had to quickly change my set-up in order to catch the rainbow while it was there. As is so often the case, the rainbow was only visible in the sky for a minute or two, and of that it was only really bright for about 20 seconds, so I just had time to grab a couple of images of its ephemeral beauty. It was a great start to my day, and an auspicious welcome to the Barrach Wood.
The lichens that had drawn my attention were growing on a large rounded rock, and included one species (Cladonia coccifera agg.) which had red apothecia visible, and another larger lichen, which is sometimes referred to as a coral lichen (Sphaerophorus globosus).
The apothecia are the parts of the lichen that release the spores of the fungal partner in the symbiotic partnership that is comprised of the fungus and an alga. Quite a few species in the genus Cladonia produce bright red apothecia like these, making them some of the most visible and distinctive lichens in the Caledonian Forest. I’m fascinated by the miniature, forest-like world that their podetia, or stalked cups, create, and they made a visually interesting combination with the coral-like structure of the Sphaerophorus globosus colony beside them on the rock.
On another part of the same rock, there was a different lichen, called Parmelia saxatilis. This is another species that is easy to identify, and this patch had apothecia as well – brown discs in this case.
I spent quite a while with this one rock, looking at the rich variety of lichens growing on it. Their presence and abundance here indicated two things to me – firstly that the air is very clean here, to enable this proliferation of lichens to flourish, and secondly that the Barrach Wood has likely been here for a long time, for characteristic features of ancient forests such as these lichen assemblages to develop like this.
Moving in to the woodland itself, I stopped to appreciate the large, multi-stemmed pine that I’d seen the rainbow over when I first arrived. This tree had real character to it, with burls on its trunks, and it felt like it was the ‘guardian’ of this edge of the Barrach Wood.
While I was walking around in the woodland, I went to have a look at a fallen birch tree, as there are often interesting things utilising the dead wood habitat that such a log provides. My eye was attracted to some colourful shapes on part of the log, and these turned out to be a couple of fungi that were backlit, and had been partially eaten by slugs.
They were part of a larger group of fungi clustered together on the log, but I didn’t recognise what species they were. I collected a couple of samples to send off for identification, but the mycologist who helps me with fungal IDs is abroad for a month just now, so it will probably be January before I get an answer back with any information about the specimens. While they were in situ, they looked quite shiny from the moisture of recent rain, and they also had an unusual colour, so I’ll be interested to find out what they are in due course.
The sun came out for a few minutes at this point, and the low angle of it at this time of year meant that it illuminated some strands of spider silk between two young rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) saplings. I would never have seen these if they hadn’t been highlighted by the sun’s rays, and by following the silk back to one of the saplings I spotted its creator – a small orb web spider (Metellina segmentata). I was quite surprised to see it being active at this late time of the year, and I suspected it wouldn’t have much luck catching prey, as I didn’t see any flies at all during the whole day.
Continuing on into the woodland, I saw a group of pines at the top of the slope that leads down to the burn which flows through the Barrach Wood. There were three Scots pines beside one another and the tree in the middle had a very unusual shape indeed. At about 8 feet above the ground, a section of the main trunk was bent downwards at a sharp angle, and then it gradually curved upwards again, giving it a strange zigzag-type of growth.
Usually in trees like this, the main leader shoot gets damaged, causing a side shoot to grow instead, and I imagined that in this case the side shoot had been forced by something (perhaps a branch falling on it from a neighbouring tree) to grow downwards initially, before it was able to turn upwards towards the light again. However, at the point where this branch grew downwards, there was still part of the main trunk growing upwards, so the cause of its unique shape remains a mystery to me.
There was a gap in the trees near this unusually-shaped one, and that provided a good view out over the woodland to the Scots pines and birches growing on the other side of the burn, in the main part of the wood. I find these winter views of the forest very evocative and visually-pleasing, as the green of the pines contrasts vividly with the slightly pinkish-purple colour of the birches. This colour is especially noticeable on wet days like this, and also becomes more intense when the birch buds swell before opening in April each year.
From my vantage point on the slope above the burn, I could see some birches (Betula pubescens) that were closer, and they were festooned with lichens, including the old man’s beard lichen (Usnea filipendula). Their abundance on the trees was another indication of the clean air in this part of the Highlands and the near-constant damp weather, which enables epiphytic lichens like these to flourish on the trees, where their only source of water is rain or fog in the woodland.
As I walked along, some bright orange shapes caught my eye on the forest floor, and I was surprised to see that they were chanterelle mushrooms (Cantharellus cibarius). This is a common edible fungus in the forest, and it usually appears from July onwards each year, with its season lasting until early October. I’d never seen any in late November like this before, and these were large specimens as well. However, they were past their best, being quite wet and soggy so I didn’t take any for dinner, as I would have done had they been fresher.
I was continuing to appreciate the view over to the trees below, and at one place, there was a large downy birch (Betula pubescens), with its branches dripping with lichens, which reminded me of those multi-armed dancing goddesses from Hindu and Thai mythology in its shape and seeming movement.
Perhaps trees like this were the original inspiration for those cultural symbols?
There were quite a few large old Scots pines in the area where I was, and I spent some time looking at those too. They had a different suite of lichens growing on their trunks to those on the branches of the birches, and the most prominent was one of the commonest lichens in the Caledonian Forest – heather-rags lichen (Hypogymnia physodes). This is abundant on the trunks of Scots pines, and its pattern of growth makes a visually-interesting contrast to the flaking bark plates of the pines.
Near the base of this pine there were some small splashes of bright red colour, and when I looked closely I found it was another patch of the lichen I’d seen before on the rock – Cladonia coccifera agg.
Moving down towards the burn itself, I came across an area with a lot of hard ferns (Blechnum spicant) on the forest floor. This species has two different types of fronds – evergreen sterile ones which lie relatively flat on the ground, and upright fertile fronds which release the fern’s spores from sori, special structures on the underside of the fronds.
Nearby, on a fallen birch trunk, there were several fruiting bodies of the tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius) in amongst the mosses and lichens that had colonised the log. Although I’ve photographed these fungi many times over the years, I couldn’t resist taking a few more images now, as a couple of the brackets were very photogenic, as they were shiny and black from the rain, and were surrounded by the vivid colours of the moss and lichens.
Stepping over the birch log that the tinder fungi were fruiting on, I reached the burn itself. This is the Allt Riabhach, and, as it was larger than I had been expecting, I saw that I would not be able to cross it.
Although the main part of the Barrach Wood is on the other, northern side of the burn, it was not a big issue that I couldn’t get across it, as the light was already beginning to fade, because of the overcast conditions, and I would have to head for home soon anyway.
Climbing back up the slope from the burn, I stopped to enjoy the view out over the forest again. While I did so, the cloud cover began to break up a little, and this allowed the last rays of the sun to illuminate some of the clouds. It created a fitting visual end to a good day that had begun with another celestial spectacle in the form of the rainbow that had greeted me upon my arrival. It also felt like an invitation to return another day, in order to explore the main part of the Barrach Wood, on the north side of the Allt Riabhach. Until then, here’s a brief compilation of video footage to end this blog with: