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Gorse – Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

gorseWe tend to overlook gorse, often called whin in the Highlands, despite the fact that historically it has been one of the most useful of plants, very symbolic and has attracted writers, artists and poets for a very long time.  In a recent blogs about the signs of spring with flowers, trees and shrubs I forgot all about gorse.  To put it into context it could not really be regarded as a harbinger of spring as it is in flower, if you are in the right areas, all the year round.  Hence the lines “When gorse is out of bloom, Kissing’s out of season”. If you are inland around Inverness gorse is not normally in  flower in the winter months but if you move to the coast you will gradually see more and more yellow blossoms well out. The reason for this is that as you approach Inverness and along the coast the average temperatures are slightly higher, enough to make the difference with gorse flowering. At the coast you will see banks of gorse in their masses of yellow blossoms although their heavy scent of summer is still to come. Last week I took the photograph of gorse at Alterlie Point, a few miles east of Inverness, using a Canon EOS 600D plus a standard lens. The blossoms were golden yellow but I could only get a faint scent of the almonds for which they are renowned.

In the old crofting days, livestock such as cattle, horses and sheep used to browse on gorse as part of their diet but only on the fresh tender spines.  Now it is mainly deer and wild goats that browse on them and creating all sort of shapes like topiary.   Gorse was also used as fodder for livestock once it had been crushed by special machines.  Near the croft houses the gorse was planted so that they would grow as shrubs so washing could be kept on them to dry as the thorns kept them from blowing away. Gorse has always been well known as a source of fuel and feed in the Highlands and its uses are often mentioned in the Old Statistical Accounts of the 18th Century. Large areas of gorse give shelter to some specialised wildlife such as birds and in the Highlands it is an important refuge for stonechats that, with the shelter of the gorse, stay here all the year round.  There are around 20,000 pairs in Scotland and many of these are in the Highlands. One surprise, considering the spines, is that there is a butterfly whose caterpillars feed on gorse. It is the tiny green hairstreak that flies in May and June and occurs around Inverness and down the Great Glen.

Local names for gorse are whin, furze, fuzz and honey bottle.  The Gaelic name is Conasg which is derived from conas – to quarrel or wrangle. This is from the belief that if you gave someone some gorse flowers it would lead to a quarrel. Each of the eighteen letters on one of the old Gaelic alphabets was traditionally associated with a native tree and “o” was associated with whin. The shrub was well liked by the clans as a plant badge which they pinned to their bonnet or plaid.  Perhaps it was popular because of its evergreen spines but whatever the reason it was used by the Clans Logan, MacLennan and Sinclair with the latter two registering it at the Lyon Court.

Searching for Spring – Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

snowdropsThis is the time of the year when we start looking for the signs of spring and they are already there if you know  where to look. Butterburs are just pushing through the ground in the traditional place such as the roadside verges just south of Newhall Point near Udale Bay on the Black Isle.  There is another colony on the sides of the road just south of Dores on the side of Loch Ness.  Snowdrop leaves  are well up and even if the snow persists the delicate white  flowers will push their way through providing it is not too deep.  Little wonder that one local name them is “snow piercer”.   How the flower manages this is because of a small leaflet like sheath that covers the top of the flowering stems so they can force their  way through the snow.

Snowdrops are mainly a woodland plant although they will not tolerate dense shade.  It is frequent in parks, gardens, road verges and watercourses but one of its favourite places are churchyards.   This suggests  that it is not a native plant but was introduced .  Surprisingly it is not very widespread in the Highlands.  It occurs in a few place around Inverness and is commoner along the east coast to Aberdeen.  Elsewhere it is absent from vast tracts of the countryside with a few records for the coast of Caithness and a couple of sites on the west coast.  It seems to be absent from the Western and Northern Isles.   In the UK it was known in cultivation since 1597 but not found in the wild until 1778.  For a long time it was thought that in a few places it was native but now it is assumed they are all alien plants.    Newhall Point is one of the very few places where you can see colonies  of butterbur and snowdrops together and it is quite impressive.

The earliest  of the willows, often called “pussy willows”, are beginning to show and these play an important part as a food source for the first of the bird migrants, the warblers, when they arrive.   The yellow pollen attracts the first  insects and they are important for the  first warblers as they need to pack in food after their long migration from their winter quarters in West Africa.  Every year I look in the Highland Bird Reports for the previous years and look at the interesting list of first and last dates for migrants. These indicate that one of the first migrants is the willow warbler and the most likely places to see or hear them are around pussy willows and their insects.     Interestingly one of the very first  migrants is the osprey    and one of the main reasons for this is that their main  food is fish.   These they can get from lochs, larger lochans and rivers whilst they will, given the opportunity, go for fish farms.   If these various areas ice over then, even in very freezing weather, they can resort to the firths around Inverness.

The earliest of the resident birds will already be thinking of nesting and they will  already be in their territories.   Golden eagles, herons and dippers are amongst the first  and in the case of the golden eagle and heron they will already be adding refurbishing material to the huge nests.    The dipper may well have stayed in it’s territory on inland rivers and even burns all through the winter.  It is one of the few birds that can be heard singing in the winter months and it does this to advertise that it is in territory so female dippers are welcome but not males.

More on Berries & Fruits – Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

sloesLast week’s post discussed the berries and fruits of the countryside  that birds rely on such as redwings on rowan berries and blackbirds  on hips.   We also take advantage of the countryside’s harvest although our interest seems to have declined in recent years.   I can recall seeing  many people facing the thorns on bramble bushes and blackthorn after sloes.      Admittedly there are a few select spots where people still collect brambles but nowhere near as many people as there used to be.  I cannot recall when I last saw anyone collecting the sloes.    Blackthorn bushes can be quite tall and rather impenetrable and I use to use a walking stick to either pull branches  down or move some out of the way.  I was always fascinated by the very dark blue berries covered, when young, with a paler bloom as shown in the photograph.   The berries are best collected after the first frosts which make the berry softer and if you are making sloe gin it might just be ready for Christmas.  Be very wary of the spines and you would do best to wear gloves as they are very sharp.    A word of caution as you will need a lot of gin to make this recipe.   Once you decant the sloe gin do not forget to eat the sloes that will have lost their bitter taste and will have soaked up some of the  gin.  I have also used the  sloes to make sloe whisky and even sloe vodka!

Rowan, sometimes called   mountain ash, is a great favourite  for “Food for Free” enthusiasts and the berries are best collected October before they go mushy. Unless the birds get them they will hang on the branches until  January but are best collected much earlier.   The classic use  for the rowan  berries is the jelly that is a delicious dark orange with a sharp marmalade  flavour and is perfect with game, particularly venison, and lamb.  Try adding a little chopped apple to provide the pectin.

The best book on the subject is still “Food for Free” written by Richards Mabey despite  the fact that it was  written and published as long ago as 1972.  Various editions have come out since then but the outstanding  one, and the one I refer to the most,  is the one published in 2012 by HarperCollins.  This is a large format hardback and is outstanding.  In recent years a number of books have been published on the same subject but none compared with Richard Mabey’s.    Brambles, sloes and rowan berry are only the tip of the iceberg with so many other foods readily available from mushrooms to seaweeds and beech nuts to shellfish.

After last week’s article one reader commented that I had not mentioned mammals taking berries and fruits.  In this  strath the presence of pine martens is often  indicated by their droppings.  At this time of the year the droppings may well be a bright orange red  colour where the remains of rowan berry have been left behind.   One reader recorded a pine marten  clambering along  a branch of a rowan so that it curved down and another pine marten on the ground was waiting for the berries to reach it.  Wood mice often take rowan berries and they are so light they can walk out to the end of the branches.   These mice will store the berries for the winter and they often put them in the cups of old birds’ nests to store for when the weather gets colder.