This is my first time walking in Scotland. As someone who rarely leaves Norfolk I always thought that the drive to Highlands was akin to a trip to the moon. I’m just fresh back from another hike along another lush glen in the Argyll Forest. A thigh-burning climb up a deep verdant gorge, overhung with trees draped in dripping moss. The moss is everywhere, clinging to both granite and wood. To our left, as we ascended, a bubbling burn travelled down steeply in a series of gullies and waterfalls; seeking the huge sea loch below. The lower reaches of the glen were lined with deciduous trees. Oak, sycamore, beech, hazel and chestnut. With the leaves now turning, the rustic tint of autumn adds to the melancholy of the brooks constant song. As the path wound upward, the strange time-twisted forms of the trees my mind was drawn to JRR Tolkien’s Ents. Higher up, the gorge was walled with granite and huge, towering pines. All the way up, I was scanning the surroundings for sign of movement. This is pixie territory and in three days (if you discount the one roadkill we passed) I’d seen just one red squirrel … and that was close to our holiday cottage. There is time yet, but I was hoping to see more. The chances of pine marten, golden eagle, osprey or wildcat are mere pipe-dreams. Further up the glen we broke out above the tree line and stood admiring the view across the strath. I felt I was looking at a million pine trees and again, my mind was drawn to the cover picture on my old childhood copy of The Hobbit. The bare hilltops and moors hold no appeal for me on this trip, I must confess. Heather and bog hold their own place in my heart but I will rarely linger long above the tree line now. My soul is in the wood and forest … as it is in Norfolk. Like Cumbria, the rain is part of the package here. You just have to learn to live with it, as we outdoor types know. Walking beneath the tree line at least affords some shelter from both deluge and wind. Perhaps the most enthusing moments for me so far have been seeing my first hooded crows and a goshawk. Those of you who read my shooting articles or books will appreciate that I am fascinated by corvid cunning and intelligence. Studying the ‘hoodies’ up here has captivated me. I had always thought of them as ‘loners’, like their carrion crow cousins but up here I’ve seen them in small (perhaps family?) groups. In the car park at Lochgoilhead, they were quite approachable. Tamed by the lure of food from tourists, I suspect. Away from the tourist spots they were as cautious as a carrion crow. The variations in amount of smoke-grey plumage was interesting too … from half to full mantle. The goshawk sighting was quite by chance, in the persistent rain unfortunately meaning my DSLR was covered up. We saw it just below Creag Bhaogh. What I first thought was a small buzzard took off from a crag and soared past us, then floated down towards Glenbranter. We all commented on the grey plumage and it took a reference to one of my books later to confirm. Incidentally, today, we took the opportunity to walk around the Allt Robuic waterfalls. In full spate after three days of torrential rain, the force of the cataracts were awesome. I couldn’t help thinking that if this were in Cumbria someone would have wrapped the gorge in fencing and charged you to see it. Well done Scotland! As for red squirrels, at least I’d seen one. The rest of the family were disappointed they hadn’t seen any. Near Penrith a few years back we’d seen (and photographed) several. I had to remind everyone, though, that with a national population reputed to be only 110,000 the chance of a sighting was always going to be slim. Perhaps the most disappointing ‘failure’ was the lack of red deer. Even while touring in the car among the high peaks, we didn’t see one. A dearth confirmed when we sat to dinner at the Creggan Inn, Strachur last night. I had picked it for its venison. I searched the menu handed to me and questioned the waitress? “Sorry, sir. We have none”.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2017
Ever since I was a child (and I’m in my sixth decade now) I have had a fascination for the wild. The raw beauty of Nature and all that she paints on her vast canvas. From an early age I learned to identify bird and beast and by the age of twelve I could probably identify most British birds and mammals. Certainly, all those with which I came into contact on my ramblings and also many species I would probably never have a chance of seeing in feather or flesh. As the years rolled on I took a deeper interest in flora and fungi too, but I have to confess that my ability to commit names to memory has diminished along with my hair and my health! Numerous species stand out due to their stunning profiles … the crimson fly agaric or the deep blue vipers bugloss, for instance. Many more though, identified and logged into the grey matter, fade from recollection. Perhaps worst of all has been my inability to remember any but the most common of trees and shrubs. This shames me, as a fieldsman and hunter, for those trees and shrubs are the lifeblood of the habitat I enjoy most. The British wood.
Out here in Norfolk I am blessed with a cornucopia of forest and wood in which to walk, stalk, study and record wildlife. Over the years I’ve learned to identify the basic tree species but I have never been able to memorise the detail needed to dig deeper than that. I could tell you that the tree is an oak, but is it Holm oak or Sessile oak or English oak? I could point to a willow, but not know if it is Pussy willow or Crack willow. To my unpractised eye all birches are Silver … not Downy or Paper-barked. Is the hazel Common or Witch? Is the chestnut Spanish or Sweet? Some things I have learned, such as that not all conifers are pines. There are junipers, cedars, firs, hemlocks, spruce and yews. Hornbeam, hazel, beech, mulberry, maple, ash, lime and alder are familiar to me but they all come in several varieties. I know all these because I study the birds and creatures that inhabit them. It is important for me, as a hunter and photographer, to know their fruits and seeds. In spring I will enjoy their seed and bloom. In summer I will seek their shade. In autumn I will relish their fruits (and so will the wildlife I watch). In winter, their stark profile will intrigue me and the evergreens (laburnum, laurel, magnolia and box) will shelter me.
Trees are the skeleton on which the woods fragile eco-system is built and thrives. For a wood is not only a gathering of trees. A wood is a haven created by Nature to shelter and feed a community of living organisms. A single tree like an oak is a complete and wonderful eco-system on its own. It supports birds, mammals, insects and fungi. Its fruit feeds and replenishes, its bark nourishes and its boughs shelter. The cracks and holes house insects, bird and mammals. The cast leaves rot into the soil at the end of each season to add nutrients and sustain future growth. A handful of trees like this will become a copse, then a wood, then a forest if left to their own devices. Take away the trees and you take away a microcosm of Natures wonder.
Next time you chance upon a tree (they are still quite common, thankfully) take some time to study it. Particularly if it is ancient. Try to identify it. Imagine what it has endured? We have oaks around us that were born when Cromwell held power over England. How many births, deaths, wars, festivities, winters and summers could they tell of could they speak? How many nests were built here? Did the wolf and the bear once sleep at their feet? Study its bark and imagine what vast root system lies beneath the forest floor to sustain such age and growth?
I love trees. I depend on them for freedom and pursuit of my chosen leisure. I wish I knew more about them than I do. What I do know, though, is that the death of a tree and its consequences concerns Nature as much as the death of any other living thing under her charge. In her fickleness, she doesn’t care. For the death of a tree merely perpetuates the circle of life she endorses.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Feb 2015