Posts Tagged ‘Dumfries and Galloway’

Trees sculpted by Atlantic winds cling on to a rocky shore in Brittany.

Trees sculpted by Atlantic winds cling on to a rocky shore in Brittany.

Dense mangrove swamps living in semi-submerged seawater world are a frequent image of wonderfully adapted tropical forest ecosystems.  But in more temperate climes, our native woods and forests are less well adapted to life on ‘the edge’, the where the shoreline meets the soil, and the trees that live here cling to windswept rocky shores and the edges of sandy beaches.

The often harsh conditions of the seashore can be difficult conditions for normally land-loving trees to grow.  Strong, salty winds, and edaphic (soil characteristic) factors such as shallow sandy soils, pH, drainage, and nutrient deficiencies can make living life at the edge tough for trees.  In addition, where there are lush forest growths down to the shore, harvesting trees by cutting them and just letting them fall into the water for easy transport has resulted in over-exploitation and degradation of forest ecosystems.  On British Columbia’s shores, the ancient Douglas Fir ecosystems have been repeatedly exploited since the mid 1840s and are now in serious danger; not only are the remnants of an ancient woodland being cut down, but due to opportunistic invaders the nature of the area is changing too, leaving it vulnerable to fires, changing local weather patterns and species extinction (Coastal Douglas-fir Ecosystems, BC).

But where native trees manage to survive they create the best of both worlds – a wonderful walk through woodlands against a backdrop of waves rolling onto the shoreline below, and a strange juxtaposition of seabirds calling and woodland birds singing!  In the UK we have some lovely woodland walks along the seashore, some of my favourites being the small but perfectly formed East Wood, with fragments of an ancient woodland overlooking the dynamic tidal flow the of the Severn Estuary (what difference would a barrage make to this lovely wood?   But that’s for another blog….)

Admire the views surrounded by woodland - East Wood, Portishead.

Admire the views surrounded by woodland – East Wood, Portishead.

And then there’s the wonderful Rockcliffe Woods on the beautiful Stewartry Coast in Dumfries and Galloway, where the Solway sweeps in, covering the sands and causeway with alarming speed to the unwary.  On a clear day the plentiful benches along the path provide an opportunity to look across the Solway to the Isle of Man and the Cumbrian Hills (on a clear day!)

Snowy Rockcliffe, where the woodland paths overlook the Solway.

Snowy Rockcliffe, where the woodland paths overlook the Solway.

From Rockcliffe and Sandyhills you can also walk down the coast to the dramatic Needle’s Eye, a lovely archway in the granite rocks of the Southwick Coastal reserve, one of the last homes of an ancient Atlantic oakwood forest, and rich with wildlife and wonderful plants including orchids and violets.

Needle's Eye at Southwick, in the heart of ancient Atlantic Oak ecosystem and on the shores of the Solway.

Needle’s Eye at Southwick, in the heart of ancient Atlantic Oak ecosystem and on the shores of the Solway.

Up in the Highlands, where the winds are stronger and the winters long, trees struggle for survival in many places, not just on the sea’s edges.  One of the features of the Highland Clearances was the burning of houses and their wooden roof trusses – wood was so scarce a commodity that the cleared population would then have to leave their cottages to go and seek building materials elsewhere.  But where trees do grow in more sheltered areas they provide a wonderful addition to the dramatic scenery.

The Skye Bridge - The dramatic scenery of the Highlands is softened by trees which cling to survival in the harsh environment

The Skye Bridge – The dramatic scenery of the Highlands is softened by trees which cling to survival in the harsh environment


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Galloway Forest Park , at over 300 square miles, is one of the UK’s largest forests.  It includes south west Scotland’s tallest peak, the Merrick; the UK’s first Dark Skies Park; the 7Stanes mountain bike trails;  3 visitor centres and 27 way marked trails.

A forest this large also has many different facets and ‘woods within woods’, as well as a rich natural and cultural history.  Polmaddy is the ruins of a classical Galloway ‘ferm toun’, nestling in the heart of the Galloway Forest.  This farming community was founded sometime before the 16th century, it’s thought, but the ‘improvements’ and the lowland clearances of the 1700s and 1800s resulted in Polmaddy finally becoming abandoned, but the ruins of its inn, houses, water mill and stables can be seen on a 1km way marked route.  It’s a magical place and there’s an almost palpable sense of history.  It’s thought that Robert the Bruce hid here during the wars of Independence against the English, and as a reward he gave the miller ownership of the mill.  There’s more information, including photos and details of how to get there on the Visitwoods web site.

The remains of the Inn at Polmaddy, thought to have been the last building to be abandoned at Polmaddy.

The remains of the Inn at Polmaddy, thought to have been the last building to be abandoned at Polmaddy.

But for anyone with a limited amount of time and wanting to experience this amazing forest from the comfort of a car, then a drive down the 17 mile Queens Way, the A712 which connects New Galloway with Newton Stewart, is not to be missed.  This road crosses through the heart of the forest. There are lots of laybys where you can park and easily visit attractions such as the Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall, the Wild Goat Park, Bruce’s Stone and Clatteringshaws Loch.  There is also the Glen of the Bar – not for the faint hearted! – a viewing platform which overhangs a steep sided wooded valley where, it is thought, ancient Gallovidians drove wild animals over the edge prior to butchering them for meat and hides. There’s free parking here, and a picnic table too so you can have a mini adventure and a fight with the chaffinches over your cheese sandwiches and all within site of your parked car!

The viewing platform at the Glen of the Bar on the Queens Way.

The viewing platform at the Glen of the Bar on the Queens Way.

But the very best way of exploring this huge forest really has to be in foot or on your bike!  Get more information on the Forestry Commission Scotland web site.

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Woodlands are, for the most part, magical places.  But sometimes their magic can also be enhanced by some carefully chosen artwork.  Here are some of my favourites!

The Eye in Galloway Forest Park is a majestic, 8 metre high tower whose deep red colour is a vibrant addition to the surrounding forest.  And on a calm day its reflection  in the loch is something special.  But The Eye has a secret – and you need to get close to it to see what it is!  The Eye is just one of a series of sculptures in the Galloway Forest; there’s more information about them at this web site here, and for more information about the huge Galloway Forest see the VisitWoods website for Galloway Forest.

The Eye in Galloway Forest Park

The Eye in Galloway Forest Park

Grizedale Forest in the Lake District is home to over 60 sculptures throughout the forest, and makes a walk in the woods a real journey of discovery!  The collection was started in the 1970s and can all be seen from the network of paths throughout the forest.  But you need to keep your eyes open – blink, and you’ll miss some of the ‘keys in trees’ and the sensitively-sited smaller pieces.  There’s a huge amount of information and some great photos on the Vistwoods website for Grizedale.

Grizedale Forest is a wonderful backdrop for large (and small!) sculptures.

Grizedale Forest is a wonderful backdrop for large (and small!) sculptures.

Back in Dumfries and Galloway, the wonderful (well, IMHO!) Andy Goldsworthy has made his mark on the local countryside through his Striding Arches which sit high on the Nithsdale skyline.  But, tucked away in a 100 year old stone farm building in the Cairnhead Forest is the amazing Arch in the Byre.  Half in and half out of the Byre, this Arch aims to interpret the local landscape and its history.  Near the Byre, the names of farming families who lived at the Byre have been carved into a stone bench.  The old, local names of the region are carved into the entrance way to the Byre.  The Cairnhead Forest is a beautiful woodland in its own right, and the Arches add a real sense of wonderment to the area.  Information about the Striding Arches can be found here.

The Byre by Andy Goldsworthy at Cairnhead Forest

The Byre by Andy Goldsworthy at Cairnhead Forest

And finally, a gentle stroll through the woodlands at Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfries and Galloway has its own little secret – its own little arch!  We stumbled on this whilst exploring the less frequented paths along the Marr Burn.  There’s more information about Drumlanrig’s woods here, too.

Drumlanrig Castle's own Arch in the burn

Drumlanrig Castle’s own Arch in the burn

Personally, I think the most magical artworks are those you ‘discover’ for yourself in the woods, although all the ones I’ve talked about here are pretty awesome!

What are your favourite woodland arts?





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The entrance to Rockcliffe woods from Kippford

The entrance to Rockcliffe woods from Kippford

This is a lovely walk combining two woodlands; the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) owned Rockcliffe woods, and the Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) owned Mark Hill woods.  Situated along the shores of the Solway Firth these are very popular walks, as shown by the amount of footprints in the deep snow just a few days after the worst blizzards for a generation!  So it’s best to visit these woods out of peak season if possible.

You can park at the seaside villages of Rockcliffe village or Kippford –  there’s good parking with toilets at both; access to Rockcliffe wood at Kippford is at the other end of the village to the carpark.  The linear ‘Jubilee Path’ and a network of paths off it links the two villages through the woods, managed by NTS for wildlife and recreation.  In summer there is a wonderful range of wild  flowers to support the local butterfly population, there’s a veritable choral society of songbirds in the trees, and we could also hear the eiders and  oystercatchers on the Solway coast below – quite surreal when you are surrounded by trees!

the Mote of Mark

the Mote of Mark

It’s also worth a wee detour to climb up the Mote of Mark,  the site of an ancient settlement which, it has been suggested, could have been of considerable strategic importance as the centre of the ancient kingdom of Rheged.  There are fantastic views over the Solway from here too.

You can walk back to where you parked along this route –  it’s an easy couple of miles or so there-and-back route on well maintained earth paths and it’s great for all the family, although some parts take you through open farmland with grazing cattle so it’s best to keep dogs on leads here.

Or you can add on Mark Hill and the ‘Muckle Walk’ – more strenuous, and in actively managed Forestry Commission Scotland plantation; there are currently (Feb 2013) signs on the paths warning of construction work, and path diversion in the forest.  Follow the blue way markers (don’t be tempted by the many side tracks which look very tempting – they lead nowhere!) to the top of Mark Hill, where you suddenly emerge out of the conifers and onto a large granite hilltop, wind swept and exposed and with the most amazing views of the Solway, over to the English Lake District and even to the Isle of Man on really clear days.

Fabulous views of the Solway and the Galloway hills

Fabulous views of the Solway and the Galloway hills from Mark Hill, on the Muckle Walk

Return back through the forest and down the hill and reconnect with the Jubilee Path to either Rockcliffe or Kippford.

In all the two paths combined are about 5 miles.  Walking boots are advised, although the going is generally very good (it can be a bit boggy on the top of Mark Hill).  And the tops of the Mote of Mark and Mark Hill can be whipped by strong, cold winds too!

In the summer there are NTS Ranger-led walks on the Rockcliffe shore and in the woods.  The beach at Rockcliffe is also the setting for Dumfries and Galloway’s World Oceans Week Celebrations in June.

There’s more information about these woods on the VisitWoods website – see here for Rockcliffe and here for Mark Hill.

There’s also a good local guide with simple route maps by Dumfries and Galloway Council here.

And a bit more about these walks on the Walking Britain web site here.

Please note that Wood Elf Weekly is not responsible for the content of external web sites!


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DSC_0035-001 Whilst Britain’s native squirrel, the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris L.), is in serious decline in England and Wales, figures suggest that in regions of SW Scotland numbers are on the increase.  Scientists now understand that red squirrels, one of our most iconic woodland animals, can survive happily in both deciduous and conifer habitats,  but don’t seem to be able to compete in deciduous woodlands or small and fragmented habitats if there are grey squirrels around (Forest Research; red squirrel).

Management of habitat for red squirrels favours large (200-2000 ha) areas of mixed conifer, with native small-seeded trees such as rowan, willow, birch, alder and ash.  Whilst red squirrels enjoy hazel nuts and acorns (which are actually a bit indigestible because of their high tannin content), these larger seeds are also enjoyed by their grey cousins, and competition for these food sources often results in the reds losing out.  There are now habitat management strategies for woodlands with red squirrel populations.

But red squirrels have also been devastated in recent years by Squirrelpox; a deadly virus carried by grey squirrels, which doesn’t affect non-native greys but is fatal to native reds.  In 2007 the first outbreaks of squirrelpox were found in the Dumfries and Galloway area, thought to have come over the Scottish-English border, and quickly spread throughout the region.  The effect was devastating and huge areas, including Wood Elf Towers, lost their regular garden visitors over the next few years.

Red squirrels love bird food, apparently..... Photo by Mike Hall

Red squirrels love bird food, apparently….. Photo by Mike Hall

But monitoring  disease outbreaks and prompt action has resulted in our local red squirrels making a come back to a bird feeder near you!  Our lovely red squirrels- Cyril and Cyrilina (and perhaps some Cyrilettes in the future!) now enjoy a hearty breakfast at the purpose-made squirrel box (fullof sunflower seeds) whilst also snacking at the bird feeders and even the fat balls too – squirrels are nothing if not eclectic in their choice of ‘menu du jour’!

Meanwhile, research continues to find a vaccine to the Squirrelpox virus.  You can read more about red squirrels in Dumfries and Galloway at www.red-squirrels.org.uk

There’s also a great list of where to spot red squirrels throughout the UK at the Vistwoods website – click on visitwoods.org.uk/en/visit-woods/pages/red-squirrels

Squirrels like peanuts too!  Photo Mike Hall.

Squirrels like peanuts too! Photo Mike Hall.

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A  lovely twisting tree stands proud, as part of the fight against man-made climate change

A lovely twisting tree stands proud, as part of the fight against man-made climate change

I was walking in the woods yesterday and found this lovely, twisting tree on the riverbank.  It’s in a newish planting (2006) of native woodland trees so it is surrounded by young ash, oak, alder and willow to create a small, but dynamic, native habitat.  The woodland is also part of a scheme to capture atmospheric carbon dioxide and ‘sequester’, or store, it to help to fight climate change from man-made greenhouse gases.  The right trees in the right environments are a fantastic way to store CO2, through photosynthesis and storing the products of photosynthesis as bark, leaves and branches.  It’s good to see these schemes becoming more common, and let’s hope they are a  successful part of the armoury in our battle against the worst excesses of man-made climate change. More information about this small woodland in Dumfries and Galloway, and the carbon sequestration scheme it is part of, can be found at the VisitWoods website.

In fact, trees are such good absorbers of CO2 that some geo-engineering schemes have developed artificial trees.   It has been calculated that around ten million artificial trees could remove 3.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – about 10% of our global annual carbon dioxide emissions.   However, although artificial trees are considered to be  more ‘efficient’ at capturing CO2, there is also the issue of what to do with the stored CO2.  Natural trees convert this to stored woody biomass; the captured CO2 from artificial trees could be converted into ‘syngas’ as a power source to replace fossil fuels, or a liquid fuel.

So, OK, artificial trees sound good in principle, and they might be able to capture more CO2, but in terms of character, beauty, biodiversity, seasonality and function they could never replace the real thing.  Where would the birds nest, for starters?

So I think I’ll stick with the real thing, thank you, and do my best to reduce my carbon footprint in the first place.  And I’ll also support schemes such as tree planting to help absorb our CO2 and make the world a nicer place – for us, as well as the birds.  And insects.  Small mammals too.  Oh, and the lichens and fungi…………….

Artificial trees - might be good for taking CO2 out of the atmosphere, but where would the birds sit?

Artificial trees – might be good for taking CO2 out of the atmosphere, but where would the birds nest?


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Ancient trees - Lochwood oak trees are over 400 years old

Ancient trees – Lochwood oak trees are over 400 years old

Just off the busy and constantly buzzing M74, the main artery from Scotland to England, is one of the most magical and peaceful woodlands in the UK.

Steeped in history, this ancient wood is a cluster of centuries-old sessile oaks (Quercus petraea), a remnant of woodland from an age long before the crawling queues of HGVs thundered by their borders.  On the southern edge of the woods, Lochwood Tower, the now ruined home of the Clan Johnstone, is a silent witness to the turbulent history these trees will have observed through centuries of warfare with English troops and rival families, and there are recent reports of spooky and psychic activity at the Tower. Veteran oaks grow on the slopes of an ancient  Norman motte. Some of the trees here are estimated to be over 400 years old, and would have been just wee saplings when King James VI of Scotland took the road south to claim the English throne after the death of Elizabeth I.

Lochwood is now designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), as an example of Ancient Wood Pasture.  In previous centuries the oaks were managed to produce wood for charcoal, fuel, tanning or construction, by a process of coppicing. As such it is a part of our cultural heritage too, a living record of how previous generations used and managed our native woods. The subsequent neglect of the woodland from the 19th century onwards means that the once actively managed oaks have now developed fantastical and contorted shapes, huge bulges at their base, and often a hollow stem.  These characteristics can make old trees remarkably stable and helps them to weather extreme storms which might blow down heavier, taller trees.

Lochwood Tower - ruined  home of the Johnstones of Annandale (no public access)

Lochwood Tower – ruined home of the Johnstones of Annandale (no public access)

Although most of the wood is in private ownership, and there is restricted access to the woodland, the quiet public road that runs through its heart is one of the best places to see the trees from.  There is limited parking, and a small information board is the only indication of its scientific value.  But it is really worth going to visit.

The ancient and veteran trees of Lochwood are also of huge importance for the rich biodiversity they support.  Their trunks are cloaked in the dark green velvet of soft mosses, whilst ferns grow from their branches.  They support a huge diversity of invertebrates, lichens, fungi, bats and bird life, whilst the open ‘candelabra’ shapes of the trees allows dappled light onto the woodland floor, allowing a rich variety of woodland plants, such as spring-time bluebells, to carpet the ground.  We went on a wonderful winter day, when a sharp frost iced the crunchy leaves under our feet and the low winter sun illuminated the woods in a golden light.  Fungi peeped through the fallen leaves in the shelter of the ancient tree trunks, and needles of frozen tree sap made weird ice sculptures on the forest floor.  Outstretched naked branches showed off the contorted shapes of the ancient trees,  dappled sunlight gilded the forest floor, and the ancient forest felt welcoming and airy and open, in stark contrast to the gloomy interiors of the dense darkness of nearby conifer plantations.  This forest really is a delight for ecologists, environmentalists, historians and photographers, as well as anyone who just enjoys the sheer joy of magical places and absorbing the wonderful atmosphere.

Fantastically shaped ancient oaks stretch up to the sky

Fantastically shaped ancient oaks stretch up to the sky

Ancient, or Veteran, trees can be identified by their relatively large girth for the species, hollow or hollowing trunk, and the presence of a large quantity of dead wood in the canopy, and these characteristics can be seen in almost all of Lochwood’s trees. Fuurther estimations of their ages were obtained in the 1970s, when Lochwood oaks played a critical role in developing the science of dendrochronology, or the study of tree rings.  As a tree grows it adds a new tree or growth ring, which can be seen through the trunk when a tree is felled, or from cores taken from the trunk, as was done at Lochwood.  The rate of growth of the tree rings is influenced by the prevailing climate and growth conditions at the time, and dendrochronology can provide a ‘fingerprint’ of information which can date the time at which tree rings were formed.  The old oaks at Lochwood allowed scientists to construct sequence of tree ring information from 1571 to 1970.  Dendrochronology has been of vital importance in areas such as climate change, archaeology to date old buildings and wooden artefacts, and radiocarbon dating, where it is used to calibrate carbon dating investigations.

Ancient oaks show signs of having been coppiced in the past

Ancient oaks show signs of having been coppiced in the past

Don’t expect waymarked paths or easy parking at Lochwood.  Lochwood is a tiny fragment of ancient woodland in private ownership and access is very limited.  But it is a truly amazing and magical place, with such stories to tell for those who stand and listen.

Lochwood is privately owned by the Earl of Annandale.  The forest is located just a few miles from Moffat, Dumfries and Galloway, at Grid ref: NY083970.  For more information see the VistWoods website.   For more photos of this magical place, see our Gallery.

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