Nature Notes from Skye
(and occasionally other places)
Fri 5 - Mon 8 Aug 2005 (Part 1)
Was at Bettyhill on the North Sutherland coast for a British Plant Gall Society field trip. The party included Margaret Redfern, co-author of the excellent book "British Plant Galls" which has been my only guide to galls up to now, and several other experts on both galls and just about every other life form that we came across. We were blessed with dry weather the whole time, apart from the odd spot of rain, so I took a great many pictures which will take up several pages of this diary.
Virtually all the identifications on these pages, apart from some of the flowering plants on this page, were made by other members of the party, which included Ian Evans and Philip Entwistle of the Highland Biological Recording Group. Philip is an entomologist and the insects he pointed out to us were an unexpected bonus for me and my camera, while Ian, who led the trip, not only has a remarkable all-round knowledge of Highland wildlife but a very thorough knowledge of the Bettyhill area which he put to good use in leading us to a seemingly endless variety of habitats - and incidentally some beautiful walks. You don't have to be a gall fiend to appreciate surroundings like these.
I'm not putting the pictures in date order but will start with the plant life in order to set the scene, and then move on to the galls which grow on them, before finishing up with odds and ends from other categories.
Many of these pictures were taken in or near the Invernaver reserve, the link gives a description of the habitat.
I was astonished to find on this northern coast a number of plants which I imagined I'd have had to head south, not north, to see. Two of the most spectacular were Field Scabious and Greater Knapweed. In one place there was a luxuriant meadow crammed full of these two species.
Burnet Saxifrage grows with the two previous species, and Rest-harrow occurs on sandy grassy slopes.
Harebell was common in sandy grassland, and Cowslip, another "Southern" plant, was also present, but it had long finished flowering. The picture shows the fruit capsules.
So far none of the species shown occur in Skye apart from a very tiny number of Harebells. Lady's Bedstraw is also absent from most of Skye, though common in the Glenbrittle area where there is sandy soil. At Bettyhill it was, together with Thyme, the dominant plant over large areas of flat sandy foreshore. It is rather dwarf in this habitat, but it also flourishes along the roadsides where it grows to a more normal size. The alien Fairy Foxglove is a naturally short plant and fits well into the community of the windswept sand-flats.
We now move on to more northern species, still concentrating on ones that are either absent or uncommon back home on Skye.
The Baltic Rush grew in the wetter areas of sand. I had seen it before on the Culbin Sands, but this was my first sighting of the extraordinary Curved Sedge, whose stem only grows an inch or two out of the ground before turning to bury its fruit in the sand and wither away, though the leaves stay green all year. The long straight lines of shoots put up by the Sand Sedge were also seen.
Also abundant on the sand flats was this white-flowered northern subspecies of Felwort or Autumn Gentian. The Field Gentian was present too, sometimes, as in the picture, with an incredible number of flowers per plant; in Skye you're lucky to get more than one.
A number of alpine species are found at sea level here, including Purple Oxytropis which sadly was not flowering; the picture shows its silvery leaves and fruit capsules. On the right is Twisted Whitlowgrass on a coastal rock. Some areas were carpeted with Mountain Avens, but unlike similar areas in Skye the rock is not limestone; instead all the calcium is provided by shell fragments in the sand that gets blown up onto the hillside.
On a clifftop with very stunted heather and crowberry there were many plants of Spring Squill dotted about, but this too had long finished flowering and all that was left was the open capsules shedding their black seeds. On the dunes there are extensive areas of Prostrate Juniper, with Bearberry growing among it in places. There is plenty of Bearberry on Skye but this seemed a particularly good opportunity to get a picture of it in full fruit; there is Juniper and a sprig of Heather in the picture too. Creeping Willow was another member of this plant community, its Pontania Collactanea galls looking similar to the Bearberry fruit at a casual glance.
Another plant that was past flowering was the Pyramidal Bugle, which I'd never seen before. Here is its fruiting spike and leaf rosettes which are like those of ordinary Bugle in habit, but softer and greener. On the right is a splendid plant of Dark Red Helleborine on an inaccessible ledge, so it could only be photographed from a distance.
The Annual Nettle, a plant that's always eluded me on Skye, growing among a fine jungle of farmyard weeds, including ordinary Stinging Nettle. Finally the plant that everyone comes to Sutherland to see, the Scottish Primrose. This grows on the Invernaver reserve and some of us went to see it, but I did not (wanting to stay with the gall experts and learn all I could) so I stopped off at Strathy Point on the way home and took its photo there, where it grows in abundance. It was the first time I'd seen this plant and there really is something special about coming face to face with it, even for the hardened botanical twitcher. On the British mainland it only grows along that northenmost coastal strip (also on Orkney) and it may become the first lowland plant we lose due to global warming. It has two flowering seasons, some plants blooming in May to early June and others in late July to August. The fruiting spikes of the former were in evidence as well as the flowers of the latter, but the vast majority of rosettes had neither flowers nor fruit, just the distinctive mealy leaves.
Other plants of interest seen were: Yellow Saxifrage in abundance on wet sand, Knotted Pearlwort also on the sand, Lesser Meadow-rue, Scots Lovage, Moonwort, Purple Saxifrage, Viviparous Bistort, Blackthorn and Stone Bramble.
The next page is about the galls we found.
All photos and other content copyright © Carl Farmer