Species of the month – heather

The name is so closely associated with Scotland that it seems part of the very fabric of the nation. Whisky, bagpipes, red deer stags, porridge, heather: each might seem to have aspects of cliché or stereotype about them, but each is also of great value (in widely different ways) to the country.


Scots pine and heather. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Scots pine and heather. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Wide moors that flush purple in late summer and early autumn – and have a slow fade to the tawny tones of winter – owe their colour, fundamentally, to heather.

‘Heather’ can refer to any of three small, woody heathland plants, each adding their own tints to this palette. Cross-leaved heath is pale and salmon coloured. Bell heather has a hotter pink. And ling – the commonest small shrub of the Scottish moors – is pale purple-pink. It’s ling or ‘common heather’, more than the others, which is the plant most people know simply as ‘heather’.

Large areas of upland Scotland – particularly in Perthshire, the Cairngorms, Deeside and the Borders – are dominated by ling. In these places, the mass of flowers spread across many hectares of moor in August and September is unmistakable; their blush is the dominant colour at ground level. In other places and at other times, you might see fewer plants or less punchy colour. That’s when you need to look more closely to identify ling and related moorland plants.

Ling is a bushy shrub that can typically grow up to about 60 cm high in places where heathland is ‘managed’ through grazing and/or periodic burning. Where moors aren’t managed, it can grow even taller. Close-up, look for many side shoots along the twiggy stems. These are packed with rows of narrow leaves, each row opposite one on the other side of the shoot. Leaves in cross-leaved heath and bell heather are arranged in whorls up the stem.

Ling flowers can be packed together quite densely along leafy spikes in the upper part of the plant. Each purple-pink petal tube is shaped like a tiny bell (more bell-like, in fact, than bell heather flowers, which are more tubular in shape).

Bell heather (Erica cinerea). ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Bell heather (Erica cinerea). ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Heather occurs in many parts of Scotland, sometimes as an occasional plant sprouting among other vegetation – for instance, in grasslands where the soil is fairly acidic. However, the prime areas for heather are the uplands, where heathland cover (much of it with ling present or abundant) is internationally important.

Scotland is the European stronghold for upland, heather-rich heath, with about a quarter of the whole surface of the country covered in it. Both wet and dry types of heather moor grow here, each with a slightly different mix of other plants that grow with common heather. The wet moors are commonest in western and northern hill areas, where drainage may be poor and rainfall high. Dry moors are commoner elsewhere, including the heather moorland heartlands of the central and eastern Highlands and the Borders.

Woodland clearings could be considered the ancient home of heather. That’s where it can be part of an unfolding sequence of vegetation that moves in to cover ground laid bare by fire (such as after lightning strikes) or exposed to extra sunlight when trees are blown over (after storms). However, man has been giving a boost to heather for a very long time, especially through using patterns of grazing and burning that favour it over grasses and trees. In Scotland, the amount of heather has gone up and down, linked to human activity, over many hundreds of years.

Heather. ©Laurie Campbell/SNH

Heather. ©Laurie Campbell/SNH

The most distinctive heather moors are in drier uplands, where a characteristic pattern of burning strips on grouse moors is used to boost the growth of young heather. Other stages of the plant are kept as cover for nesting grouse and their broods. Typically, each of these strips is torched every 10 to 15 years. The practice of burning not too often and not too hot removes old stems but keeps the roots alive. These roots can then support fresh, food-rich young shoots, which are now free from competition with competing trees, as these will have been killed or suppressed by the fire.

In the past, heather was used for many different purposes. For instance, the people who lived in the Neolithic settlement at Skara Brae on Orkney, many thousands of years ago, twisted the tough stems to make ropes. Large balls of heather rope could be used to secure thatch and the stems were packed in as insulation inside cavity walls. Other uses included brooms and basket handles.

The best time to line a box bed with heather was after harvesting when the heather was in full bloom. After being spread out to dry for a few hours, the material was packed with all the flowering heads upright and leaning a little towards the head of the bed. Held in by logs at its edges, the finished product was said to look like a field of purple bending in a breeze. It might also give out a honeyed, sleep-inducing perfume, which provided quite a mattress for use in a peasant’s cottage.

Heather would continue to grow in many places – including the woodland clearings that are its natural home, so to speak – without people’s help. But the large, heather-rich moors that are famous for both their colour and extent owe their continuing presence to human action.

Many of these moors would, through natural processes, become woodlands if they weren’t regularly burnt to promote the regeneration of heather. It would survive in open areas there, but it wouldn’t be the dominant plant across a whole landscape. So in that sense, heather moorlands are very strongly linked to human activity.

The action with the most obvious heather boosting effect is grouse moor management. This also produces the distinctively patterned, multi-toned strips on hillsides. Elsewhere, a different kind of ‘muirburn’ to promote fresh growth of grasses may also maintain some heather.

So if we’re to continue having large areas of heather in Scotland, then very careful muirburn (now governed by law and through codes of practice) is essential. People are also trying to keep Scottish heather in the pink (or purple) through research into how different amounts of grazing affect heather cover, along with advice to different kinds of upland managers.



Seasonal scenes


Where buds at the ends of long ‘leading’ shoots have survived the winter, these are usually the first to break into new growth in spring. Where those buds have died, ones on shorter shoots might sprout first. The fresh leaves are bright green and widely spaced, in strong contrast to the dull, densely packed foliage from the previous year’s growth.


Fresh shoots continue to grow.


August and September are peak times for vibrant heather colour on Scottish moors. The timing of peak colour varies from year to year, depending on the weather conditions in both spring and summer.


Growth stops and plants become dormant. This includes buds that will, with luck, survive until the following spring and be able to send out fresh shoots.

Further reading – Plantlife page on heather http://www.plantlife.org.uk/wild_plants/plant_species/heather/


Posted in Species of the month | Tagged , , , ,

Here be dragons

Dave Pickett, who looks after Flanders Moss National Nature Reserve, follows his introduction to this central-belt gem with a short piece looking at one resident in particular – the lizard.

Sometimes when you visit a nature reserve it can be a bit disappointing as you have gone to see nature but none is about. Well, pick a sunny day and take a stroll around the Flanders Moss and you will be sure to see wildlife … lizards abound right at your feet.

Common Lizard. ©Laurie Campbell/SNH

Common Lizard. ©Laurie Campbell/SNH

The moss has always been a great spot for reptiles and amphibians, the pools and ditches good for frogs, toads and newts and the drier areas good for lizards and adders but seeing them can be difficult.

The moss is hard walking and a slip into a deep water filled ditch can spoil your day. But as soon as we put in the boardwalk the lizards took to it immediately. For them it provides an ideal basking place where they can sit on top and warm up in the sun but if it rains or turns cold or people come along then they can just slip between the treads to safety.

The wide flat spaces of the boardwalk also offer great feeding areas were quick darts can bag a lizard their main food flies. Of course the boardwalk was put in to give people a flat, dry easy path to enjoy the moss so when a feature is put in that brings people and wildlife together it adds to the excitement of a visit.


Flanders Moss NNR.

Flanders Moss NNR.

Over time the Moss has become well known as a good place to see lizards, if you go slowly and quietly and are light on your feet then you can see the smaller, blacker, this year’s youngsters and mixed in the occasional bigger adults resplendent is their beautiful green, black and blue mosaic overalls.

I have met many parents and children who have come across the central belt just to see the lizards on the boardwalk, so many that we considered changing the name of the NNR to Lizard NNR.  So never mind Springwatch or Summerwatch, if you fancy a walk and an encounter with real life wildlife, and real miniature dragons at that, then take a sunny walk on the boardwalk of Flanders Moss NNR.

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There is more to a bog than bog

Dave Pickett, our reserve manager at Flanders Moss National Nature Reserve, reports from the ever-changing patchwork of colours that characterise one of the central belt’s hidden gems. This wild space is one of Britain’s largest, intact raised bogs. Extending over three square miles it is a special place and an internationally important habitat.

Blaeberry, heather and lichen carpet growing on a raised bog at Flanders Moss NNR. Argyll and Stirling Area. ©Lorne Gill/SNH For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.snh.gov.uk

Blaeberry, heather and lichen carpet growing on a raised bog at Flanders Moss NNR. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Lying in Scotland’s central belt is a nature reserve that offers something a little different. It is wild but accessible, tranquil but buzzing, soaking wet but you will keep your feet dry, peaceful but absolutely buzzing and one of Scotland’s biggest bogs but not that bad! It is Flanders Moss National Nature Reserve.

Don’t be put off by the name bog, behind the word is a special habitat with a multitude of riches to be enjoyed from special wildlife to unique landscapes with interesting histories. And Flanders Moss NNR is one of the biggest and least damaged bogs in the UK, it covers 860ha (over 2000 football pitches) but was once much bigger.

It lies on the Carse of Stirling, about 10 miles west of the city and is surrounded by rich farmland, some of which in the past was won from the bog by peatland clearances of an epic scale. Scottish Natural heritage has been working on Flanders for the last 30 years, to restore the bog habitat and to make it easier for people to visit the reserve.

The viewing tower at Flanders Moss NNR.

The viewing tower at Flanders Moss NNR.
©Dougie Barnett/SNH

There is now a boardwalk and path that allows you to walk around a small corner of the site in dry feet and a viewing tower that lets you look out across the full extent of the bog and its setting of hills and mountains all round. The path from the car park to the open moss takes you from bleak farmland to the vibrant wild bog in a few steps.

Visitors on the boardwalk trail at Flanders Moss NNR,

Visitors on the boardwalk trail at Flanders Moss NNR,

A survey carried out on the many visitors to the moss brought to light a few surprises of how and why people used the reserve. Though many came first because it was a nature reserve, it appears that it is the feel and atmosphere of the bog that people actually enjoy. The most common words used to describe it were quiet, peaceful, different, atmosphere and accessible. And in order of popularity the things people liked the most were the quiet, the tower, the peace, the wildlife, the colours and the view.

One visitor said that she always stopped at the moss with her children when returning from parties as it was the best way of calming them down. And though the path is only just under 1 km long and is a flat easy surface that is accessible to all, the average time spent by visitors at the reserve was nearly 1 hour. Some didn’t dawdle quite some much, with the great views and easy path making it popular for health walks and even short jogs!

So if you want to sample a bit of wilderness, escape the rat race and enjoy the peace, take in some special wildlife, sample the birdsong and just chill then why not take the bog road at Flanders Moss.

 Find out how to get to Flanders Moss NNR at http://www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/flanders-moss/visiting/


Posted in Flanders Moss NNR, National Nature Reserves | Tagged , , ,

New breeders and passage migrants

Craig Nisbet is the warden on our Noss National Nature Reserve. With a keen interest in birds he has been sharing news of his latest sightings, and below he updates us on what he has spotted in the month of June.

June has been a month of varying fortunes for two species of bird on Noss this year. Both golden plover and greylag goose made breeding attempts this season.

Golden plovers have bred on Noss in small numbers in the past, with the last successful attempt being made in 2008. Greylag geese on the other hand have never been recorded breeding here, and with this year’s attempt they become the 32nd species of breeding bird for Noss. The pair of golden plover had been observed holding territory since May of this year, with the familiar plover-like broken wing diversion display tactic being seen by my colleague Andy while passing them by. We were delighted this week when a chick of no more than a few days old was discovered under their protection near the south side of the island, and we’re hopeful that they can bring their youngster to fledging age over the coming weeks.

Golden plover

Golden plover

The greylag geese were surprisingly more elusive, and nothing was known of their breeding intentions until this week, when I was surprised to see a pair of them leading two few-day old goslings toward Cradle Holm. The adults flew, leaving the young goslings alone to wander down a near vertical embankment. It was heart-breaking to watch one fall to its death, while another valiantly struggled to climb the cliff back to its calling parents, before being predated by a hooded crow. A dangerous part of the island for geese to breed.

Greylag goose

Greylag goose

Spring has been brightened up in no small part this year by the visits of a few stunning migrants. By far the most unusual of visits was the nightingale, usually seen no further north than their breeding grounds in the south of England.



The most colourful of our visitors was the striking spring male bluethroat, with his spectacular blue patch glistening in the early June sunlight after being discovered in typically drizzly conditions the night before.



A familiar British bird with parasitic tendencies stopped in briefly for a visit a few days later, and although its distinctive call was not heard, the regal appearance of a male cuckoo was unmistakable. Their habit of using other birds’ nests to rear their young doesn’t endear them to many people, but as strategists they must be admired, as they are able to use smaller passerines as hosts to their offspring while they promptly depart for warmer wintering grounds in Africa.



The latest migratory highlight was an icterine warbler. After a fall of them in Shetland on various other islands the previous week, we were delighted to have discovered that Noss had not been excluded after all. The chances are that this individual was in fact one of the birds that had already been in Shetland, and with unfavourable winds would probably have been biding its time before continuing its migration eastwards.

Icterine warbler

Icterine warbler

The peak of spring migration has now passed, but with some of the biggest Noss rarities having turned up in June and July, you really never know when something extraordinary may turn up.


Images courtesy of Craig Nisbet.

Find out more about Noss NNR at http://www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/noss/


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A late feeding frenzy at Craigellachie

Craigellachie National Nature Reserve is easily glimpsed from the A9, but as it sits on the other side of the road to Aviemore it can be overlooked. More’s the pity as it is one of our finest nature reserves, as Dominic Shann from our Media Team recently discovered on a family day out.

I’ll be honest – we’d come to see frogs. Time your visit to Craigellachie NNR right and you’ll witness the spectacle of thousands of newly metamorphosed frogs in, on and leaping around the lochans and wetter parts of the reserve.

Common frogs, SNH/Lorne Gill

Common frogs, SNH/Lorne Gill

Tucked behind the A9 at Aviemore, Craigellachie is not the quietest or most remote NNR you can visit – you’ll need to walk under the A9 to access the reserve. But with trails to suit all abilities, it’s a conveniently situated haven for locals and Aviemore’s countless visitors. Besides, you very soon forget the fading drone of traffic and become absorbed by the world around you.

Craigellachie NNR

No frog chorus though this time, not a frog to be seen, and it was soon apparent why. There was a late feeding frenzy going on!

The cold weather earlier in the year seems to have delayed the frogs’ appearance.

Our disappointment was very short lived. I was quickly relieved of my phone and for once I didn’t mind, although I would prefer to freely hand it over than to be so deftly pickpocketed. We learned about the geology and wildlife around us using ‘Mobitour’, the reserve’s phone information facility: simply call the number at certain spots along the trail and enter the code for your location. And it’s free (if you have a minutes-inclusive phone deal).

The site’s damp and sheltered conditions have favoured birch-dominated woodland and the reserve’s trails wind around its lochans and through one of the largest remaining birch woodlands in Strathspey. As the ‘Woodland Trail’ ascends, dramatic views of the Cairngorm plateau can be seen through the thinning trees.

S1030034Habitats found on the reserve are incredibly varied for such a small area, providing homes for a wide range of species. On the hill top there are areas of dry heath with bearberry, wet heath and blanket bog. Within the woodland there are open glades, wet flushes and freshwater habitats.

S1030017The reserve gets its name from ‘Creag Eileachaidh’, an imposing crag which provides a safe nesting place for breeding peregrines – if you’re lucky you might catch sight of one soaring above your head. There are about 50 bird species which you could spot on the reserve, including lesser redpoll, wood warbler, spotted flycatcher, tree pipit and occasionally crossbills in the woodland.

Many species of moth thrive on the reserve including the rare Kentish glory, the Rannoch sprawler, the netted mountain moth and the angle-striped sallow. Woodland butterflies you might spot include the orange tip, the Scotch argus and the white pearl bordered fritillary. Also keep an eye out for dragonflies and damselflies hawking around the lochans and wet woodlands.

Orange tip, SNH/Lorne Gill

Orange tip, SNH/Lorne Gill

As well as the aforementioned common frogs, you might also see common toads and palmate newts hanging around wetter areas, whilst Loch Puladdern and the old reservoir contain brown trout, minnows and the rare three-spined stickleback.

More than 385 types of flowering plants have been recorded on the reserve, including nationally scarce dwarf birch, serrated wintergreen and bog hair-grass. At least 22 species of lichens occur on the reserve; and 71 species of fungi have been recorded, many of which are specifically associated with birch.

Dwarf birch, SNH/Lorne Gill

Dwarf birch, SNH/Lorne Gill

Red deer are the reserve’s largest mammals, sometimes seen on high ground above the trees, or heard roaring in the autumn. Roe deer may also be glimpsed in more open areas, feeding on shrubs and grassy lawns. Pine marten are seen occasionally and on summer evenings pipistrelle bats fly amongst the birch in pursuit of moths and midges.

Craigellachie has been a National Nature Reserve since 1960 and it was designated a Site of Scientific Special Interest (SSSI) a year later. Since then research into geology, soils, plants and animals has improved our understanding of the reserve’s ecology.

A main focus of our conservation management on the reserve has been to enhance the semi-natural woodland by encouraging natural regeneration of a range of native trees. Heavy grazing had suppressed much of the natural regeneration and so cattle were removed from the reserve in 1960 and in 1982 around 300 wintering sheep were removed from the NNR.

Construction of the A9 in the 1980’s cut off the reserve and the only way to get to it was by crossing a busy road. With completion of the underpass, which provides the only safe access to the NNR, visitor numbers have increased to around 9,000 a year. The Craigellachie underpass can be reached from the Aviemore Highland Resort car park or via a way-marked path from the Youth Hostel.

We’ll be paying another visit soon, to see if we can catch sight of the frogs.

For more info visit the NNR website .

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A new Highland icon

Katy Malone is a Conservation Officer with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and has a special interest in the great yellow bumblebee. Here she explains why, and reveals some of the steps being taken to try and halt the decline of this distinctive insect.

Think of a wild creature, an icon of Highland wildlife. What springs to mind for you? I would imagine the first things are probably large, furry, charismatic animals such as red deer, wildcat, pine marten, and red squirrel? I’d like to make a case for a rather smaller, equally furry, brightly coloured creature – the Great yellow bumblebee.

Going, going, gone?

In the UK, the Great yellow is only found in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, associated with flower-rich machair and grasslands around the far north coasts and outer islands. It has been a UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) Species since 1997, becoming a UK BAP Priority Species in 2007.

But it wasn’t always so. Fifty years ago it was widespread throughout the UK in both inland and coastal areas, though never in great numbers (due to its specialist niche – more on this later). It may always have been more associated with coastal areas however.

Its name in German, ‘Deichhummel’, means dyke (seawall) bumblebee. In contrast to many rare species which are pushed south, the distribution of the Great yellow has actually moved northwards instead, and the best places to find it are the Uists, Orkney and the far north coast of the mainland between Caithness and Kinlochbervie.

Great yellow on clover, Gordon Mackie (Caithness)

Great yellow on clover, Gordon Mackie (Caithness)

Bumblebees are thought to have originated in the Himalayas around 30 million years ago and most of the 250-odd species worldwide are similarly cold-adapted2. Of the 24 species of British bumblebees, Great yellows are the largest and hairiest, which may go some way towards explaining why it seems to dislike the hotter climate of our southern neighbours.

I mentioned that they occupy a rather specialist niche. They are most often found in open grassland, such as extensive flower-rich meadows, rarely visiting gardens except where there is suitable grassland close by.

Changes in our agricultural landscape over the last 75 years have hit them particularly hard. We have lost 98% of our wildflower meadows on which bees depend. Since the 1940s, two species have become extinct and it is thought that one third of our social bumblebee species have declined by more than 70%3. Note though that accurate data is limited to distribution rather than abundance – a key gap in our knowledge that the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT) is plugging through our BeeWalk4 survey scheme. The Great yellow is now one of the two rarest bumblebees in the UK.

Great yellow on Clover, Gordon Mackie (Caithness)

Great yellow on Clover, Gordon Mackie (Caithness)

Secondly, Great yellows emerge from hibernation quite late, generally in late May/early June, so need flowers that bloom late into autumn in order to complete their annual lifecycle. A nest that does not produce new queens and males at the end of its life has failed. A Great yellow must have a supply of nectar well into September/October, such as that provided by greater knapweed and devils-bit scabious.

Thirdly, bumblebees can be broadly categorised as short tongued or long tongued. This determines the type of flowers they prefer to feed on – deep flowers have lots of nectar but need a long tongue to reach them, while open shallow flowers are easy to access but tend to have relatively little nectar by comparison. Great yellows have a very long tongue. They feed predominantly on the tube-like florets of red clover and other members of the pea/vetch family.

So the Great yellow needs (1) open grassland, (2) long flowers, (3) late flowers, and lots of them. Traditionally-crofted machair is perfect, but this type of management is not widespread, and flower-rich habitat remains vulnerable to changes in grazing regimes and cropping.

One of the ways BBCT is currently addressing this is through an innovative new project based in Caithness, called Thurso: Gateway to the Great Yellow, or T:GGY for short5. With funding from the Heritage Lottery, SNH, the People’s Postcode Lottery and the Caithness and North Sutherland Development Fund, T:GGY is an exciting and timely community-focused project and call to action. It is designed to engage and encourage local people living in Caithness to do something positive to help protect our bumblebees and other pollinating insects. Although focussed on Thurso, the main town in Caithness, the benefits of habitat work and community engagement will be spread right across this county which is so crucial to the survival of the rare Great yellow bumblebee in mainland Britain.

We are working in partnership with the University of the Highlands and Islands, Forestry Commission and Learning through Landscape to involve communities in active conservation work to safeguard, restore and create valuable bumblebee habitats. Supporting volunteers through training, and setting up long-term monitoring of bumblebee populations through our national survey/monitoring programme, BeeWalk, is a key element of the project and one of BBCT’s long term strategic aims. If you would like to know more, have a look at our website link below, or keep an eye on the local press.



  1. National Biodiversity Network Gateway (NBN) (2013) http://data.nbn.org.uk/gridMap/gridMap.jsp#topOfMap (Accessed 11/01/2013)
  2. Hines HM (2008) Historical biogeography, divergence times, and diversification patterns of bumble bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Bombus). Syst. Biol. 57, 58–75
  3. Burns F, Eaton MA, Gregory RD, Al Fulaij N, August TA, Biggs J, Bladwell S, Brereton T, Brooks DR,Clubbe C, Dawson J, Dunn E, Edwards B, Falk SJ, Gent T, Gibbons DW, Gurney M, Haysom KA, Henshaw S, Hodgetts NG, Isaac NJB, McLaughlin M, Musgrove AJ, Noble DG, O’Mahony E, Pacheco M, Roy DB, Sears J, Shardlow M, Stringer C, Taylor A, Thompson P, Walker KJ, Walton P, Willing MJ, Wilson J and Wynde R (2013). State of Nature report.The State of Nature partnership.
  4. http://bumblebeeconservation.org/get-involved/surveys/beewalk/
  5. http://bumblebeeconservation.org/news/thurso-gateway-to-the-great-yellow-wins-heritage-lottery-fund-support




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Exploring woodlands

At this time of year many of us will enjoy a stroll in one of Scotland’s  woodlands. To help you get the most out of your visit, our blog today suggests a few special sites to explore and what you might find in them.

National Nature Reserves and other reserves under the care of voluntary conservation organisations, are amongst the best places to see some of Scotland’s most valuable native woodland.

Birch woods

Of all our native trees, the slender birch is the most abundant, and the most widespread. Capable of surviving in cold and exposed situations inhospitable to other trees, birch dominates many woods north of the Great Glen, and those bordering the high tops.

Birch woodland at Craigellachie NNR near Aviemore.

Birch woodland at Craigellachie NNR near Aviemore.
©Lorne Gill/SNH 

Many kinds of animals use birch woods for shelter and food. A range of  insects too depend on or are associated with birch trees and some Highland birch woods have rare and fascinating moths, beetles and flies. Many of these woods are rich in flowers, including species characteristic of the north of Scotland, such as wood cranesbill and globe-flower. Craigellachie and Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserves have good example of this kind of woodland type.

Caledonian Pine Woods

Scotland possesses the only examples of native pine woodland in Britain.

Majestic red-barked pine trees dominate the canopy in the eastern Highlands, often accompanied by birch, and less frequently aspen. Heather, blaeberry and mosses form hummocky undergrowth amongst which rare flowers, such as creeping lady’s tresses and twinflower may grow. And the patient walker may be rewarded with glimpses of red squirrels, red and roe deer, pine marten, crested tit, capercaillie and the magnificent osprey. Pine woods are outstanding places for fungi and insects. This woodland type can be seen at Abernethy, Beinn Eighe and Glen Tanar National Nature Reserves.

Caledonian pines silhoutted against sunrise light on Loch Clair.

Caledonian pines silhoutted against sunrise light on Loch Clair.

Oak Woods

Oakwoods occur throughout Britain, but are particularly extensive in the western Highlands as far north as Wester Ross. They are characteristic of loch shores and the lower slopes of the hills. Many of these woods were formerly intensively coppiced and this management still shows in their structure.

Many of these woodlands fall within the international definition of temperate rainforests. The most important oak woods for wildlife are those near the Atlantic Coast. Mild, wet conditions favour the growth of rare ferns, lichens, mosses and liverworts, which grow not only on the ground, but also in the trees and over boulders. Insect and other invertebrates are usually numerous; there are many that live only on oak trees.

Good example of this type of woodland may be seen at Ariundle Oakwood and Taynish National Nature Reserves.

Alder Woods

Alder grows beside rivers and in damp situations on richer soils. In late spring and summer the ground flora in some alder woods is lush and colourful. Sedges, valerian, meadowsweet, marsh thistle and many other species can be spotted. Mound Alderwoods in Sutherland, beautifully set in the site of a former estuary is one of the biggest and best Alderwoods in Britain. The wood is virtually undisturbed and has an impressive variety of plants and invertebrates.

The Mound alder woods near Golspie.

The Mound alder woods near Golspie.
©Lorne Gill/SNH

Mixed woods with Elm, Ash and Hazel

These attractive woods are typical of gorges and outcrops of limestone or other base-rich rocks. Rassal Ashwood in Wester Ross is one of the most northerly ash woods in Britain. It has many special plants including ferns, mosses and liverworts. Ash bark provides a habitat for many lichens.

The Clyde Valley Woodlands National Nature Reserve includes some of the best examples of gorge woodland in Southern Scotland; Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve in Wester Ross is a spectacular site in the north.



Further information:

All the NNRs mentioned in the above article have pages on the NNR-Scotland website.   The A-Z list is at http://www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/find-a-reserve/azlist/.  There is also information on woodlands on our website at http://www.snh.gov.uk/about-scotlands-nature/habitats-and-ecosystems/woodland/.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust have a blog for their Falls of Clyde reserve (part of Clyde Valley Woodlands NNR) at http://blogs.scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/fallsofclyde/, and RSPB have a page on Loch Garten at Abernethy – http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/seenature/reserves/guide/l/lochgarten/index.aspx.


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