Wilderness Cottages Self Catering Holiday Cottages in Scotland

Posts Tagged ‘ highland flora ’

Gorse – Ray Colliers – Wildlife in the North

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

After the last few weeks of mentioning signs of spring flowers a few readers have asked me to give more information about gorse which is one of the most fascinating shrubs  in the Highlands.   In the past it has had widespread uses and has had a  role in myths and legends and a widespread use by man for food,  medicine and numerous other uses.    There are two old country sayings about the flowering of gorse ” While  the gorse is in flower Britain will never be conquered” and the other is “When the gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of fashion.”   Patriots and lovers need not worry however because some blossoms of gorse can be found throughout the year.   For example  in January this year there were messes of gorse shrubs in flower at Fort George and, afterwards, as I drove inland  the amount of gorse in flower dropped.    This  decline in overall flowering of gorse is because the overall temperatures decrease as you go inland.

These days we get use to the idea of hay, straw and artificial feed being readily available for domestic stock and many other uses but it  has not always been the case and people have had  ingenious ways of coping.   Many people will know that, for example, heather has been used  as bedding, thatch and making ropes but perhaps fewer people will be aware that in the past gorse has had an important role for a variety of reasons.   However,  of all the uses the one the always intrigues me is that in the past gorse has been planted near  croft houses and other houses so that washing could be laid on it to dry.   With the very thorny branches of the gorse there was very little chance of the washing blowing away.     But gorse, sometimes  called whin of furze, can also cause  problems as it burns fiercely so that heathland fires can spread rapidly making them difficult to get under control.  However, there is another  side to this as this ability  to burn made it valuable as fuel when peat and wood was in short supply  before the development of the coal trade.  As it leaves very little ash it was also used in firing bricks, tile and lime kilns and also for fuelling bakers’ ovens.    In  contrast it has always been very useful as hedges or windbreaks for stock.

brown hareAnother economic use of gorse was as fodder for stock although only the young, tender and nutritious leaves could be used direct.   Thus tender greener leaves are much used by wild animals such as deer, rabbits and wild goats to the extent it looks like hand cut topiary.  Brown hares, pictured here, really go for gorse when there is snow on the ground  like last week.  Otherwise the gorse had to be cut and then pounded to crush the hard prickles and in Scotland special machines were developed called  whin bruisers and the more advanced whin mills.  These mills either used a roller or wheel to crush the chopped gorse as it was fed into a channel.   Gorse has also had a widespread use for ourselves such as a medicine made from the flowers that was supposed to cure jaundice and stones in the kidney.  In contrast, gorse wine made from the flowers is still very popular and the flowers have long been used for  flavouring whisky.    If you look at some of the large expanses of gorse, such as on the Drummossie Moor just south of Inverness, you will get an idea how important such areas of gorse is to a range of wildlife.    A wide range of birds breed here and a  notable one is the stonechat.

First Signs of Spring – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

Driving back over the Drummossie Moor just south of Inverness I suddenly decided I need another sign of spring.  Perhaps it was simply age or perhaps the gorse on the side of the road.   The gorse was interesting because as I left Inverness there was an abundance of its bright yellow flowers on the shrubs and the further I went over the moor the flowering decreased. On the south of the moor there were only odd patches of flowers.   The reason for this  change of flowering is that the nearer the coast you get the weather is  slightly  milder.  As for signs of spring, I had already seen snowdrops  and butterbur at Udale Bay on the Black Isle  near Cromarty this year.    Still no frogs though and there was also the fact that there was still some snow and ice about so all thoughts of bird migrants such as swallow and willow warbler faded rapidly.

However, as if to crystallise my thought about spring, across the road, fairly high up, flew a flock of 15 lapwings  with their characteristic odd flapping movement of their broad black and white wings.   They may not be typical bird migrants to many but to me they have always typified spring when they are inland in small groups.    The lapwing flying over the moor could well have spent the winter in Ireland or on the Continent in France, Spain or Portugal so they could well have been migrants,  although not from very far.  Certainly they were the first lapwings I had seen in the area since last summer when two or three pairs  were breeding on the part of the moor I was driving through.

Of all the waders breeding inland  the lapwing has fared the worst through the dramatic  changes in  agricultural techniques.  In the part of Strathnairn where we live we moved there 30 years ago and the breeding waders included  curlew, lapwing, redshank, common snipe and oystercatcher.  The first to go was the lapwing and only the curlew now lingers on as the rest have gone.    This decline is reflected in many other parts of the Highlands.     There may well be around 50,000 pairs still breeding in Scotland each year  that is a significant part of the UK breeding total but the numbers are still seriously declining.    Numbers have,  incredibly, halved since 1999.    One of the biggest problems of the ground nesting waders, including the lapwings, are the predators on the eggs, from  mammals to birds.     The hooded crows and carrion  crows are, perhaps, the worst  as one crow  will entice the pair off their nest while the other sneaks in and another  clutch of eggs is gone.  It is difficult to know just when this overall decline will ease as agriculture  seems to get more intensified as the years go by.

One local name of lapwings is “Flapper” after their wing beats  but the commonest local name is “Peesie” whilst the collective names, which I still do not understand, is “Deceit”  or “Desert”.   There is an abundance of Scots names, over 30, including “Tee Whip”, “Scochad” and “Wallop”.  The commonest of the three Gaelic names is “Curracag” meaning “With a bonnet”.   In the past the lapwing has been hated in Scotland, partly because it is alleged to have betrayed the Covenanters in the hills by its restless cries but also because these birds, which habitually called “Bewitched, bewitched”, are the spirits of the dead who cannot rest and have returned  to haunt the earth.

Snowdrops – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

It was time to look down under the huge beech trees in the acre garden to see if there was any sign of the first wild flowers  of the spring appearing.   I was heading for the solitary elder tree that is around  four metres high and every time I see this elder it make me smile. The reason is that it was not until we had been this house for about ten years  that I realised that the  elder was there at all.   Even then I would not have seen it if I had not been looking for the first spring flowers, a colony of snowdrops.    So twenty years ago I had stood over the snowdrops and for some unknown reason I wondered what the shrub was growing over them   I thought it was an elder but as it was the end of January there were no leaves, not even buds, and so was not until later in the year that I realised it was an elder and the only one in the garden.

Elder is a small deciduous tree and native to the UK and it is thought  that the name elder is from the Anglo-saxon “aeld”, meaning fire, because its hollow stems were used as a bellows to blow air into the centre of a fire.  It often grows near rabbit warrens or badger setts, where the animals distribute the seed via their droppings.  Badgers love to use the grey brown, corky furrowed bark to sharpen their claws although there has never been any sign  of this on “our” elder although there is a badger sett not far away.  Elderberries are eaten by a wide variety of birds from blackbirds to robins and mammals  from wood mice to pine martens.   We also use  it for a variety of purposes such as elderflower wine and elder syrup from the berries.   It has been widely used in myths and folklore.  It was supposed to protect against witches and could ward off evil influences so they were widely planted  next to houses and cottages.   It  was traditionally the tree on which Judas hanged himself or the tree of the cross of Calvary, being supposed to be twisted and stunted ever since.

However, my original  thought of visiting the elder today was to see if the colony of snowdrops growing under the tree were flowering, a sure sign of spring and one of the first.    How pleasing to see that not only were the leaves of around forty plants well up but about half of them, if not more, were also in flower.   For some reason their vivid white petals  looked so important and significant against the otherwise drab looking trees and shrubs  from beech to ash and sycamore to rowan.  It is one of the earliest of spring flowers and even when there is snow on the ground the leaves will push through if it is not too deep.  No wonder then that one of the local names for the  snowdrop is “snow piercer”.  How the flowers manages this is because of a small leaflet like sheath that covers the top of the flowering stems so that they can force their way through the snow.   My favourite local  place to see snowdrops is on the roadside verges on the Black Isle between Udale  Bay and the Newhall Point just round the corner.   There you can find large numbers of snowdrops but also large numbers of butterbur and they are very impressive so why not go along this weekend and see for yourself –you will not be disappointed.