On Saturday I made another trip to Glen Strathfarrar, hoping to catch the last of the autumn colours at their best, as the birches had hardly started turning, during my previous visit, three weeks ago. Instead of going up the road in the main part of the glen as I usually do, I decided on impulse to go up a Hydro track on the north side instead. I had only been up in that part once, about 10 years ago, and had always wanted to return, so this seemed like a good time to do so.
The track leads up to the north of a small ridge that separates the watercourse of the Neaty Burn from the main valley, and the area is quite secluded and indeed invisible from the main road. Initially I passed through some young birchwood, but soon the landscape became more open, with only a handful of old trees left, growing along the watercourse, where deer couldn’t reach them. In a narrow ravine section, there were some oaks growing, as well as hazel and a young holly bush. Those, and the abundant bracken, indicated that the soils were relatively fertile there.
A little further on and there were some large alder trees (Alnus glutinosa) growing beside the burn, and one of them had a tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius) on it. That species normally grows on dead birches in Scotland, but I had heard it occurs on alder too – this was the first time I had seen it on one though, and the tree was alive as well. I’ve subsequently found out that there are only 3 other records for the tinder fungus on alder in Scotland, so this was a good find.
As I took some photographs, I heard the distinctive barking sound of a red deer (Cervus elaphus), and looking around, I spotted a hind on the hillside about 200 metres away, watching me. She didn’t move for about 1o minutes, and kept barking intermittently, so eventually I got my long lens on the camera and walked a bit closer, managing to get off a couple of shots before caution got the better of her and she moved away.
The wind began to pick up, so I moved on and was drawn towards a few old birch trees, with one or two fallen trunks amongst them. These logs looked to be in about the right condition to be hosting some slime moulds, and sure enough, on one of them there were some good examples of one species (Lycogala terrestre) visible amongst the moss. I’ve written in another recent blog about my interest in slime moulds, and I’m gaining more experience of where to find them.
On one of the other logs I found another slime mould by lifting up a loose section of bark. This was one I didn’t recognise straight away, and I hope I’ll be able to get it identified from the photographs. Because slime moulds decay and disintegrate very quickly, it’s very difficult to collect samples that will survive the time required to get them to an expert for identification – in most cases the samples just crumble or shrivel and become unrecognisable.
Nearby, I saw some large clumps of common haircap moss (Polytrichum commune) which were growing in an area of wetter ground. As I approached them I noticed that quite a few of the patches had spore capsules rising up above the leaves of the moss itself, like miniature Chinese paper lanterns held aloft on tiny poles. It makes me wonder if this, or a similar species, provided the inspiration for the people who first developed such lanterns, hundreds of years or more ago? This moss species is a favourite of mine, in part because the individual shoots look a little like miniature Scots pine seedlings when viewed from above. The large clumps are also visually interesting, with the repeating pattern of the moss’ foliage contrasting with either the spore capsules, as in this case, or perhaps some fallen lichen or autumnal leaves that have landed in their midst.
By this time the landscape had become quite open, with only a few old trees scattered about. I found it quite a sad area, as there was obviously no regeneration taking place, because of grazing pressure – there were plenty of birch seedlings on the ground, but no young trees getting established at all. In addition, the pylons from the hydro scheme in the glen dominated the landscape there, and the burn itself had hardly any water in it, because most of it is diverted further upstream to supply the hydro installations. It seemed like a summary of the state of much of the Highlands today – a heavily exploited landscape that is a mere shadow of its former self, and unable to recover because of the pressures that people maintain on the land.
Moving on again I came to another small stand of old birches, one or two of whom had died and fallen over. This provided more logs to search for slime moulds, and this time I found a couple of spectacular examples that I hadn’t seen anywhere before. On the surface of one log there was a small bright red patch, about 7 mm across, which stood out dramatically against the dull brown of the log. It’s another case of seeing if I can get the species identified by sending the photo to an expert.
On another log a few metres away I found abundant tiny fruiting bodies of a cup fungus, and it was a species that I hadn’t encountered before – Lachnum virgineum. The fungal discs seemed to almost glow with translucence, and were in the form of miniscule cup-shaped growths, rising up from the wood of the log itself. To my eye, they formed a miniature world of great beauty and wonder – one that is seldom encountered or appreciated.
I spent quite a while looking at these fruiting bodies, as it seemed like a unique opportunity to find this fungus, and I have no idea when I will encounter that species again. I took quite a lot of photographs too, as the cups are very photogenic. At first I thought they were another different type of slime mould, but when I sent the photos to an expert, he said they were actually fungal, and subsequent research, plus a check with mycologist Liz Holden, confirmed the species as being Lachnum virgineum.
By this time it had begun to rain, and I was having difficulty keeping my camera equipment dry, even with an umbrella held over it. The wind, which had been quite strong all day, had a strange propensity for reversing direction frequently, and it was blowing the rain at an almost horizontal angle, which made it hard to keep raindrops off the camera lens. I headed for a lone birch tree with an umbrella-like shape, hoping that it might provide some shelter, and also because I could see some interesting-looking lichen-covered boulders underneath it. This scene reminded me of a pinewood area I had visited about 10 years before, in Stora Sjöfallet National Park in northern Sweden, where all the rocks were covered with lichens like this.
Some of the lichens (Parmelia saxatilis) had brown apothecia on them – the part of the lichen that releases the spores from the fungal partner in the symbiotic relationship that makes up each lichen. These were particularly vivid and bright, due to the moisture from all the rain.
The lichens had almost completely covered the rocks, and there was very little of the bare mineral surface visible anywhere. Lichens have been very effective at colonising almost every available substrate or habitat in the world, making them one of the planet’s most successful groups of organisms.
Some nearby rocks had bright orange lichens on them. These are crustose species, and they grow, crust-like, flush against their natural substrate – in this case the rock surface. They are relatively common on rocks throughout the Highlands, but are difficult to identify – it usually requires work with a microscope and chemical agents to determine the correct species. These lichens brought a real splash of colour to the rocks, and they made a colourful end to my day – the light was fading so it was time to head for home.