It is the time of year that the necessary chore of cutting the grass of any green space that you are responsible for begins. Indeed, here at Unique Cottages, the office Flymo was dragged out of hibernation in the garage and put to work in the garden this morning! However, with much of Scotland’s fine landscape covered in greenery, some of it very remote and hard to access for even the most robust of mowers, a more imaginative approach has been required for one particular east coast beauty spot. Many horses this weekend will be traveling great distances in order to race in the English Grand National (there is a Scottish Grand National, but not until next weekend). But none have probably travelled quite so far as the newest residents of the Loch of Strathbeg nature reserve in Aberdeenshire. Rare wild Konik horses have been brought all the way from Holland to help with the battle against the coarse grasses of the area taking over. The last descendants of the truly wild horse, which last ran free in Scotland approximately 6000 years ago, these remarkable animals love nothing more than eating their way through the coarse grasses, which, if left uncontrolled begin to impact on the more delicate habitats of the area. Reducing the need for vegetation to be artificially stripped away by mechanical devices, this tiny herd will help to ensure that many of the other wild inhabitants of the nature reserve continue to enjoy the unique environment that Loch Strathbeg provides. Loch Strathbeg, a designated Special Protection Conservation Area, is the largest dune loch in Britain. There are hides where visitors can watch the natural residents as well as an information centre where you can find out more about what you spied. The loch is looked after by the RSPB and more details about the variety of wildlife that lives here can be found on their website. Aside from the reserve itself there is much to be enjoyed in this attractive part of the country, to the east is the Cairngorm National Park, to the north and west is an inviting stretch of Scottish coastline which boasts the title of ‘sunniest corner of Scotland’! Unique Cottages has two fabulous properties not far from Loch Strathbeg, Cairness Lodge and Beach Retreat both ideal bases to explore this charming region.
After the ice age, when the glaciers melted, greenery once again reclaimed the lands of Scotland and pioneer native trees began to grow and spread. At one time, much of Scotland was covered in indigenous forest, with trees such as Birch, Willow, Ash, Hazel, Yew and Rowan dominating the landscape. However, now only 1% of Scotland’s land is covered by this type of ancient woodland, but the area’s where it still remains have become a priority in relation to preservation and we definately have some champion trees that deserve a mention (and a visit if you’re in the area).
Let’s us start with the Fortingall Yew. Estimated to be between 2,000 and 5,000 years old, this conifer is thought to be the oldest known tree in Europe. Standing in the churchyard of the village of Fortingall in Perthshire, the tree has stood longer than the church itself. It stood before the introduction of Christianity to Scotland and it was likely to have been regarded as a sacred place since the Iron Age.
The tree is now surrounded by a wall built in order to protect it from souvenir hunters who, over the last few hundred years, have visited it and taken parts away with them. However, the wall has come to serve two purposes, not only protecting the ancient Yew but also supporting many of its ageing branches.
Local legend says that Pontius Pilate, the judge at Jesus Christ’s trial, was born in the base of the tree and played in its shade as a child; allegedly, he was the illegitimate son of a Roman legionary stationed in the area and a local girl! In times past Yew trees were referred to as “trees of eternity” – in the case of the Fortingall Yew it would seem to be true!
Not only is Scotland home to the oldest tree in Britain (and probably Europe), but it is also home to the tallest tree in the UK. Although the overall winner in the category of tallest tree has been a matter for debate (due to technicalities in their measurement) both of the finalists are Fir trees and stand at over 200 feet tall. In 2009, as part of the “Tall Trees Project” a tree known as the Stronardron Douglas Fir in the grounds of Dunans Castle, Argyll was crowned the champion, with Diana’s Grove Grand Fir at Blair Castle, Fife coming in a close second.
Then there is the Capon tree in the Scottish Borders that is also worth a mention; it is the last remain tree of the once very extensive Jed Forest and is estimated to be 500 years old. This old Oak’s trunk is now split in half and many of its branches are propped up with wooden supports, yet each year it still has a central role in the local summer festival when the principals of the celebrations make their way to the tree and a sprig from its branches is pinned to the lead-man’s lapel.
These are just a few individual trees in Scotland which we think are worth a little praise but if you would like more information about areas in Scotland where ancient woodland can still be found then the Woodland Trust website gives details of woodlands throughout Scotland as well as useful information to help you plan your visit.
It is easy to write about the cute, cuddly, cretins and beautiful, bodacious, birds that make up Scotland’s abundant wildlife. However this week I feel I should give mention to a rather unusual fish that has been in the news this week. The Sparling, a fish indigenous to Scotland, was once very common in Scottish rivers but now its numbers have seriously declined and it has to be said not many people even know about its existence, let alone the challanges it faces.
If you put the word ‘Sparling’ in Google, you will find that the top listings have absolutely nothing to do with this small silver fish – but perhaps that is because they are better known as European Smelt (Sparling being the Scottish name for this uncommon aquatic vertebrate). They spend their most of their lives in the coastal waters around Western Europe, but in March (infact right about now) they take advantage of the high spring tides and these courageous little fish make their way upstream to spawn.
Despite their ability to withstand the changes from salt water to fresh water, Sparling are actually pretty poor swimmers (not something I ever thought I’d find myself saying about a type of fish) and this has played a part in its elusiveness in British rivers. As the water quality in our inland waters has decreased, so the number of rivers in which Sparling can be found has reduced vastly, and now they are only found in three rivers in Scotland – the Forth, the Tay and the Cree.
It was the fight to save the future of these fish in the river Cree that caught my attention this week as volunteers braved the river during the night to carry out important conservation work – I have to say, rather them than me! The river Cree, in the west of the country, flows from Loch Moan in the heights of the Glentrool Forest to exit into the North Channel not far from the bustling market town of Newton Stewart. It is the only river on the West Coast that still attracts Sparling to its waters, although the conservation work that is being undertaken includes an attempt to establish the nearby river Fleet as another place that they will spawn. This is great news, as Sparling were, for so long, an important part of the eco-system for many Scottish rivers and their visits support the survival of many other animals such as seals, goosanders and otters in the waters that they manage to continue to journey through.
It seems odd, even to me, that the plight of this wee fish has caught my imagination, especially as I was not aware of it until this week – but I will definitely hold out hope for the survival of Sparling in the Cree and the success of its re-introduction to other rivers in Scotland!