A season in the Glen: Gus Routledge relives this summers highlights as a field ecologist

Working on a single site throughout the year allowed me to appreciate and more fully understand how the landscape worked, how species survive and are distributed within the landscape, as well a develop my survey skills. This site is tucked away in Wester Ross, one of the most dramatic parts of Scotland, and this area is no exception.

With munros all around and a long, U-shaped valley stretching along its length, it was hardly the easiest site to survey! Nevertheless, the challenge was welcomed, especially with the prospect of some spectacular species to be found at any time of year.

Spring can arrive very late in Scotland and even at the end of April the glens can frequently be blanketed

Spring can arrive very late in Scotland and even at the end of April the glens can frequently be blanketed

The surveys I was helping carry out here included bird (Brown & Shepherd and Species-specific) and mammal surveys between April and August. The mammal surveys covered all species and included protected species such as Pine Marten and Water Voles and, to my surprise, Badgers.

As with most places in Scotland, the weather in Wester Ross is somewhat unpredictable and spring arrives late here. After substantial spring snowfall, and even when temperatures reach above 20°C, we were still coming across snowfields high up on the Munros. 

Despite this, there was still plenty to see, including Purple Saxifrage Saxifraga oppositifolia clinging to the crags and Golden Eagles Aquila chrysaetos circling out of a snow-storm. The huge numbers of Red Deer Cervus elaphus are also most evident at this time of year as they come down off the hills to feed in the glen.

A young stag in a snow flurry

A young stag in a snow flurry

Purple Saxifrage is an early flowering Arctic-Alpine species

Purple Saxifrage is an early flowering Arctic-Alpine species

In late spring more breeding bird species make themselves known with various displays and calls. Hearing the song of a Greenshank Tringa nebularia ringing out at the lochside below as you descend from the top of a munro is a spectacular experience (spotting it against the hillside opposite is a bit tricky).

Mammalian life also becomes more apparent, as small ditches have the snowy blanket taken off them to reveal Water Vole Arvicola amphibius latrines on small, muddy platforms. Badgers Meles meles were also more obvious, with latrines and footprints being found all along the glen and even up the hillside. For a species that we often regard as woodland-dwelling, these mustelids were certainly doing well living off Blaeberries Vaccinium myrtillus and insects. I also managed to see an Otter Lutra lutra in the flesh on the large loch on site.

Badger and Water Vole prints lay side by side alluding to their presence in the glens

Badger and Water Vole prints lay side by side alluding to their presence in the glens

By July, the breeding season appears to have come to an incredibly abrupt stop. The whole glen and surrounding mountain-tops fall silent, nothing bar the occasional squeak of a Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis breaks the sound of the wind rushing through the boulder scree. A few breeding waders lingered on some of the lower tops, namely Dunlin Calidris alpina and Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria, both of which made quite a fuss about my presence, confirming they were breeding on site.

Not quite everything has left though. A lot of the species are simply keeping a low profile with their young such as the Ptarmigan Lagopus muta. This specialist of the montane scree-slope will do its best to lead you away from its young chicks if you come across them, or if they think you haven't seen them then they can sometimes just freeze in front of you allowing for some really close encounters. Mountain Hares Lagopus timidus can also be remarkably confiding.

A male Ptarmigan in mid-summer stands proud but well camouflaged amongst the boulders

A male Ptarmigan in mid-summer stands proud but well camouflaged amongst the boulders

August, the last month of surveying at this site in Wester Ross was solely for butteflies. The far north of Scotland doesn’t often appear to be the sort of place a flimsy-winged insect would thrive, but they do! Provided the weather conditions are warm and sunny enough (sometimes you need to wait for these conditions), there can be a huge abundance of butterflies.

The most numerous on our survey was Scotch Argus Erebia aethiops which would be out in force when the cloud cleared. Amongst these, in the more open meadows and bracken-covered slopes, Dark Green Fritillary Argynnis aglaja, Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria and Common Blue Polyommatus icarus also appeared.

A fine Scotch Argus. These often emerge en masse as they did this year

A fine Scotch Argus. These often emerge en masse as they did this year

Surveying such a dramatic and interesting site in Scotland is great. Of course it comes with its challenges, such as covering 40 square kilometres and four munros with a glen full of peat hags and bogs; but it’s all worth it. You never know what will turn up next, whether this is a couple of Swifts Apus apus migrating down the glen or the discovery of the UK’s smallest orchid, the Bog Orchid Hammarbya paludosa. 

Dan BrownComment