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Swans on the loch. South west Scotland

Swans on the loch. South west Scotland

March 3rd has been designated as World Wildlife Day by the United Nations General Assembly. Its purpose is to both celebrate, and raise awareness of, our wonderful flora and fauna, and the date is the anniversary of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1973.  Our increasing human population and its demands on fragile ecosystems and their non-human inhabitants can make for very depressing reading.  But here at Wood Elf Towers we have decided to celebrate the fabulous diversity of wildlife that we have here in Scotland, and we’d like to share it with everyone too, so we hope you enjoy the photos!

Red deer

Red deer, north west Scotland

Red deer, north west Scotland

These two fabulous stags were photographed on a lovely June day in Arnisdale on the west coast of Scotland, an area more commonly associated with Gavin Maxwell of Ring of Bright Water fame.  About 350,000 Red deer live in Scotland, and it is the country’s largest land mammal. Males, identified by their impressive antlers as on this photograph, weigh around 190kg, whilst females are slightly lighter at 120kg.  They can live for up to 18 years.  Originally Red deer lived in and on the edge of woodlands, but with increasing habitat losses, red deer have now adapted to open hillsides. There’s more about Red deer in this Forestry Commission article.

 

The Common Spotted Orchid  Dactylorhiza ssps.

Spotted orchid, Scotland

Spotted orchid, Scotland

This lovely flower can be seen frequently in boggy areas, by streams and in mountain areas flowering from June – August. It is varies hugely in colour and height, and is generally anything from pale pink to deep lilac.  There are two very similar species, D. fuchsia and D. maculata, the major distinguishing feature being the whether they are growing on acidic or alkali soils.  This photo was taken on the west coast of Scotland which has predominantly (though not exclusively!) peaty, acidic soils. You can read more about Common spotted orchids at this website.

 

Guillemots

Juvenile guillemot, Isle of Skye

Juvenile guillemot, Isle of Skye

The guillemot is a sociable bird, living in huge seabird cities on sheer cliff faces, like those that are found on the west coast of Scotland.  However there is concern over falling numbers, and the guillemot has been awarded an ‘amber’ conservation status by the RSPB. This guillemot is probably a juvenile, judging by the down around its beak; it was spotted on the pier steps at Portree on the Isle of Skye, probably having been washed up there after heavy storms.  It seemed to like the steep concrete steps and didn’t seem too bothered by me photographing it!

 

Cushion starfish

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Cushion starfish, north west Scotland

Our underwater environment is a truly spectacular, colourful and jaw-droppingly amazing place.  It urgently deserves a lot more protection and appreciation than we currently give it (but that’s for another blog post!).  As a scuba diver exploring Scottish waters, I was frequently asked by curious passers-by exactly why I was diving (for fun) in murky, grey,  freezing cold seas. Well, perhaps this photo tells you why.  The cushion starfish is not particularly rare, in fact it is particularly abundant in Scottish waters.  But it is a fine example of the technicolour glory of our underwater environment!

 

Red squirrel

Red squirrel, south west Scotland

Red squirrel, south west Scotland

After centuries of persecution by bounty hunters, habitat loss, and now squirrel pox and competition from grey squirrels, the recent come-back of the red squirrel in parts of Scotland is a result of some great conservation work by Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) and the Scottish Land and Estates (SLE), who launched Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS) in 2009, a partnership project to take action to save Scotland’s red squirrels.  We are lucky here in SW Scotland to have a thriving population of red squirrels, frequent visitors to our garden to raid the squirrel box for seeds and then bury them all in the lawn!  We also help with surveying and monitoring local woodlands for red squirrel populations too.  See more about this wonderful project at the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels web site.

So as you can see, although there’s a lot to worry about, there’s plenty to celebrate on World Wildlife Day!

All photos Copyright  © Susan Hall 2014

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Winter tree 1, Scotland. Copyright Susan Hall 2014

There is something rather ethereal and fantastical about snow-covered trees.  I don’t know if it’s the stark monochrome contrast, or the fact that a coat of snow means we lose the ‘fussiness’ of a view and maximises the architectural grace of trees.  Whatever it is, I love photographing those bare winter branches glistening with snow against a clear blue sky– or, more likely here in south west Scotland, against a grey and rather bleak horizon as these two photos illustrate.

Winter tree 2, Scotland. Copyright Susan Hall 2014

Winter tree 2, Scotland. Copyright Susan Hall 2014

Freezing snow can do some amazing things to trees though – have a look at this web site with its amazing tree sculptures in the snow. Not sure if we’ll ever get conditions quite like that in this corner of the world!

 

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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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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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How cute is this little fellow?  Photo from the Guardian.

How cute is this little fellow? Photo from the Guardian.

Hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) are probably one of the UK’s cutest and most iconic woodland mammals, and often feature in some of our most popular literature – think Mrs Tiggywinkle, or the unfortunate ‘croquet balls’ in Alice in Wonderland.  There’s also A Prickly Affair: The Charm of the Hedgehog, by Hugh Warwick which is a delightful account of the natural history of the hedgehog – although beware, it does contain accounts of hedgehogs as a roadkill delicacy.

There’s a lot of folklore  and myths surrounding the hedgepig too.  Elizabethan farmers thought that hedgehogs suckled the milk from dairy cows, and there was a bounty of 3 pence per hedgehog caught.   The Romans thought that the hedgehog could predict the start of Spring, whilst Asian cultures credited hedgehogs with great wisdom.

Recently there was a huge public outcry surrounding the hunting of hedgehogs in the Hebridean island of the Uists and Benbecula.  Not a native of these islands, hedgehogs were introduced in the seventies to help with slug control in island gardens.  However it was considered that they were a threat to the local ground nesting wader bird populations, whose eggs the hedgehogs were eating.  The resultant cull of the hedgehogs  organised by SNH resulted in some very divided opinions about wildlife management on the islands.

Hedgehogs are known as the ‘Gardener’s friend’ because of their love of slugs which they devour noisily.  They hibernate in dens (‘hibernacula’) between November and March, and appreciate a thick bed of leaves, or a well made twig stack.  However, our UK populations are in decline – numbers are diminishing, it is thought, because of increasing use of slug pellets in gardens, from death on our roads, and from loss of habitat.  You can get more information from the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.  And the Woodland Trust has a lovely hedgehog poster,  with loads of facts, at its Nature Detectives site, where there are also loads of great hedgehog themed activities.

There’s also a great hedgehog photo gallery over at the Guardian (from where this photo was copied), and some really gorgeous video at this BBC web site.

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Dscn29841st January 2013 – wow, that’s a bit scary, where did 2012 go?  A year of ill-conceived and poorly thought through UK Government plans to sell off English forests, an increase in the spread of Phytopthera ramorum in conifers, and, of course, the potentially devastating outbreaks of ash die-back which threatens the heart of our native woodlands.

But it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.  If we all do a little bit to help raise the profile of our native woodlands, learn more about them, get our family and friends out into the woods too, then we can all help to protect and conserve our fabulous natural heritage.

Here in SW Scotland, New Year’s Day has been one of rain and rainbows, sunshine and snow.  We are hoping for some great winter days to explore our local woods and add them to  the Visit Woods web site.

So here at Wood Elf Towers we would like to wish you all a happy, healthy and peaceful 2013 and happy woodland wanderings!

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P1000244Well, as it’s almost the end of the year the Wood Elves have been amusing themselves in the long dark nights as they sit by a roaring log fire with a small/medicinal sloe gin, by compiling ‘Top Ten’ lists – you know the sort of things, the completely materialistic Top 10 ‘Things I desperately wanted for Christmas and didn’t get’, or the more reflective ‘Top Ten Dismal Failures of 2012’.

To get things back on a more relevant footing, the Wood Elves decided to compile a ‘Top 10 list of woodland Top 10 lists’ after a peek through the blogosphere and internet – we found these great websites and we hope you enjoy them as much as we do!

No. 10  Sarah Maitland’s Top Ten Books of the Forest –there’s a great choice of reading in here, from classical Shakespeare to Grimm’s fairytales and taking in the wonderful I-Spy series, and also including a book of the work of our favourite artist, Andy Goldsworthy.  A great option for when you can’t get out to the woods!

No. 9 Travel: ten of the best autumn walks in Britain – a photo gallery by the Huffington post of gorgeous UK woodlands in their autumnal finery.

No. 8 Ten best woods and forests for myths and legend – a wonderful list of ‘must see’ woods for ghosts, mythical creatures and curative waters.  And not forgetting Robin Hood, of course!

No. 7 Gabriel Hemery’s Top Ten Largest Forests in the UK – this includes 3 Scottish forests, including the Galloway Forest park, the largest UK forest and right on our doorstep, and the magical Affric Forest in Inverness-shire (8th largest).

No. 6 Ten best leafy walks – although an autumn-themed list, these walks are wonderful all year round.  More information on many of them can be found on the VisitWoods web site.

No. 5 Ten best bluebell walks – look forward to spring; bluebells are the iconic woodland flower, and spring is really here when the woodland floors are carpeted in magical blue! This list includes the fabulous Carstramon Woods in Galloway, too.

No. 4 Top Ten British Trees – BBC’s Countryfile’s list of trees includes some intriguing woody facts and figures, including the most UK’s most expensive tree, tallest tree, and deadliest tree!

No. 3 Top ten trees for UK gardens – everyone should have a tree, but many of us only have the smallest gardens (if we are that lucky, even!).  But this BBC Gardener’s World list has some great ideas for beautiful trees in the smallest plots.  There’s something for every garden including trees with beautiful barks, flowers and foliage.

No 2 Top ten places to see ancient trees in the UK – unfortunately this doesn’t include any Scottish forests despite being a UK list.  Nonetheless there are some wonderful woods listed here, great places to go and walk in woods with a real sense of history, a real contrast to the more ubiquitous short-rotation forestry!

No.1 Ten best woods and forests for wheelchairs and buggies – this list is our number one choice because everyone should be able to enjoy our magical woods and forests.  This is a wonderful list of UK-wide woodlands, full of history and heritage and wild flowers and which really are accessible to everyone!

So there you go!  Hope you enjoy these lists, but please remember that Wood Elf Weekly isn’t responsible to links to external web sites.

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