On 30th April I went out with my colleagues Jill Hodge and Abbey Goff to West Affric, to collect cuttings of tea-leaved willow (Salix phylicifolia) for propagation in our tree nursery at Dundreggan. This would be the first such collection of this species from the area for us, and we’d been trying to find a mutually convenient date for several weeks, before finally settling on this one. Jill and Abbey live near Tomich and in Cannich respectively, so we arranged to meet at Dog Falls and go together westwards from there in one vehicle.
It’s rare for me to get much time out in the field with some of our staff, so I was looking forward to this day, not only to spend time with Jill and Abbey, but also because I was keen to have another look inside the Coire Ghaidheil exclosure. This was the first of a series of 10 exclosures we erected in partnership with the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) in the 1990s, after they purchased West Affric in 1993. Situated at the eastern boundary of the estate, the 9.5 hectare exclosure contained the largest concentration of trees on West Affric and was fenced in November 1994. I go out there every few years, with the last visit having been in early June 2012. In 2004 I’d discovered a patch of tea-leaved willows growing near the top end of the exclosure, and it was those that we were going to collect from this day.
Driving along the south side of Loch Affric, we stopped several times to look at some birds. We saw two ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) soaring on the thermal currents above the loch, looking for fish, on what was still a sunny morning then. We didn’t see them swoop down, however, and we soon lost sight of them as they headed eastwards down the glen while we continued west towards Athnamulloch. Almost at the end of the last Forestry Commission Scotland exclosure for pinewood regeneration along the south of the loch, we saw two male black grouse (Tetrao tetrix) just beside the vehicle track. They’ve been spreading west in the glen as the forest has expanded there, providing them with a suitable habitat of young trees. Reaching the bothy at Athnamulloch, we set out on foot, and almost immediately came upon a remarkable and very unusual sight – an unopened bottle of whisky in the middle of the plank across a small burn! We were rather bemused by this – had it been left there as a ‘random act of kindness and senseless beauty’, or had someone left it for friends who they knew were coming along after them? With none of us being whisky drinkers , we were quite happy to indulge in a bit of speculation about the bottle, and leave it there for the next walkers to similarly be surprised by it.
From Athnamulloch it’s about a 45 minute walk to West Affric and the Allt Coire Ghaidheil. Along the way, we noticed some signs of new life, which indicated that spring was finally about to arrive, several weeks later than usual. There were a few patches of stag’s-horn clubmoss (Lycopodium clavatum) growing near the track, and we also saw several large caterpillars – these were of the drinker moth (Euthrix potatoria).
Reaching the burn, we headed up the eastern side, on the outside of the fence, as there’s a stalkers track there to follow. The difference in vegetation between the inside and outside was readily apparent, as heather (Calluna vulgaris) predominates inside, whereas outside it is browsed by red deer (Cervus elaphus), so grasses such as purple moor grass (Molinea caerulea) are the main vegetation. As we climbed up the slope, I mentioned to Jill and Abbey that a couple of our Conservation Week leaders who had done a survey of this exclosure for us about 10 years ago had found a small Scots pine seedling (Pinus sylvestris) growing not far inside the fence line. I’d looked for it a couple of times since then, but had never seen it myself.
Literally within a minute of saying this though, I spotted the seedling! I wondered how I hadn’t seen it before, but perhaps it was because those trips had been in the summer, when the heather and other vegetation was green, whereas now the pine seedling stood out clearly from the brown of the heather around it. I climbed inside the fence to photograph the seedling, and asked Jill to take a GPS reading, so that we had a record of its location.
While I was taking the photographs, Jill scanned the exclosure with her binoculars and spotted 3 more young pines growing there. Two of those turned out to be seedlings of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), a non-native species from North America that was formerly grown as a commercial crop in parts of Glen Affric. Those have all been removed from the western part of the glen, but we still come across occasional regenerating seedlings, like this. I despatched both of them with the small saw on my Swiss army knife, and then went on to look at the third pine. I was astonished to see that it was about 10 feet tall, and a Scots pine! No one from Trees for Life had seen this pine before, so we had no idea that there was one like this, growing so well in the exclosure.
It was looking very healthy indeed, and we could see that in each of previous two years it had grown about 18 inches (45 cm.).
This pine had done so well because it was growing in a sheltered location, on a steep slope on the east side of the Allt Coire Ghaidheil. The ground was dry and well-drained there, and good mineral soil must have been close to the surface, providing an ideal nutrient source for the tree. It was also largely out of sight from the fence line above, which explained why it had gone un-noticed until now. I spent a little while with the tree, appreciating its tenacity and vigour in thriving in this location, several kilometres from the nearest mature Scots pine that could have provided the seed it grew from.
While we were at this pine, we spotted three more young pines on a ridge a little further upstream. One of those turned out to be another lodgepole, but the other two were Scots pines, so that gave us a total of 4 young Scots pines regenerating naturally in the exclosure.
Leaving the pines, we kept going further up the hill, and discussed how we were going to reach the tea-leaved willows, as they were on the other side of the burn. Normally, it’s easy and straightforward to cross the burn, but on this particular day it was in spate after heavy rain the day before, and there wasn’t any easy or obvious place to cross. We went up the top of the exclosure and continued on upstream for another 200 metres or so, before we eventually found a place where we were able to get across safely.
Once across to the western side of the burn, we made our way down to the area where the tea-leaved willows are growing, and had a rather late lunch. After eating, we began taking cuttings from the willows, which were readily distinguishable from the eared willows (Salix aurita) growing nearby by their yellower bark and more advanced buds – those of the tea-leaved willows were just bursting whereas it looked like the eared willows would not come into leaf for another couple of weeks yet.
While Jill and Abbey were taking most of the cuttings, I took a few photos of the opening buds on one of the tea-leaved willows. From previous visits I knew this was a female plant, and the female flowers were just visible emerging from some of the buds.
I was pleased to get these photographs, as I’ll be writing a Species Profile about tea-leaved willow at some point, and it will be good to have a range of images for that, showing the plant at different stages in its life cycle throughout the year.
Altogether, we collected cuttings from seven different tea-leaved willow bushes. Each cutting will be divided up into smaller pieces and then placed straight into the soil in a bed in our tree nursery at Dundreggan. Willows can be propagated quite simply by this method. Some of the plants will be planted out inside fenced exclosures to grow on as part of the forest being restored through our work, while others will remain in the nursery, to be used as stock plants from which further cuttings can be taken, so that we don’t always have to take more cuttings from the wild.
As we walked around in the exclosure, we came across several distinctive patches of mammal scat. They looked like the scat of a pine marten (Martes martes), but were too large for that animal, we thought. After seeing a few different ones, we concluded that they must be from a fox (Vulpes vulpes), and we wondered if it was living in the exclosure. It’s possible a fox had got inside the fence somehow, but then hadn’t been able to find a way out again. We also noticed an area under a couple of large boulders that looked like it would make a good fox den …
As we walked down, we got a good view across the burn to the steep gully on the other side where the large Scots pine was growing.
Near the bottom of the exclosure, we stopped to look at a large eared willow bush that I’ve been photographing for many years. There was no sign of any buds opening on the bush this day, so I wasn’t able to take another in the series of similar photographs that I’ve been taking since 1996. However, my attention was drawn by some unusual growth formations on the tips of some of the willow’s branches. These were camellia or terminal rosette galls, and are induced by a midge (Rhabdophaga rosaria). I’ve seen then on eared willows elsewhere in Glen Affric before, and also at Dundreggan. Their presence here at Coire Ghaidheil, like that of the sawfly that had been feeding on one of the pines, is an indication that the regenerating forest there is already supporting a range of invertebrate species. When we help the trees to grow again, many other species benefit, as the web of life that is the forest ecosystem begins to re-weave itself.
We looked at several other eared willows nearby in the exclosure, and they had the same galls on them, so there is obviously a healthy population of this gall midge there. Fortunately though, it’s not a species that bites humans! Reaching the bottom of the exclosure, we continued on down to the main track, and walked back to Athnamulloch, well satisfied with our collection of tea-leaved willow cuttings. We were slightly surprised to see that the bottle of whisky was still sitting on the plank near the bothy – who knows how much longer it will be there for?
Reaching our vehicle, we drove back along the south side of Loch Affric, stopping at a couple of locations to take cuttings of some eared willows, also for propagation in our nursery. This species is much more common than the tea-leaved willow, so there was no need to take cuttings of it at Coire Ghaidheil and carry them 4 kilometres back to the car, when we could collect them by the roadside on the way back out of the glen.
While Jill and Abbey were collecting the eared willow cuttings I wandered around a little, and came across a boulder with a pattern of brightly-coloured lichens growing on it. It was also great to see all the natural regeneration of birches, rowans, eared willow and even some Scots pines that is taking place in this part of the glen. The trees are still comparatively young, as this area was only fenced 10 or so years ago. However, as with the regenerating trees at Coire Ghaidheil, these ones are the vanguard for a new forest that is spreading now in Glen Affric, and which, in the next decade or so, will transform significant sections of the glen, as the vegetation communities return to good health and diversity there, for the first time in centuries.