Laurie Campbell s Life in the Wild

Revisiting Glen Affric for a few days this summer reminds Laurie Campbell of the elusive wildlife, such as pine martens, that may be found in this beautiful Scottish location Glen Affric in the northwest Highlands of Scotland is famed for its large tracts of remnant native pine forests —and it was largely because of these that, in 2001, it was designated a National Nature Reserve. These ancient woods differ in character to those found in the drier east, such as on Strathspey. The climate has an influence in Glen Affric as the glen runs approximately from east to west, so rainfall figures can vary from one end to the other. The result is that although you may have difficulty in finding the distinctive nest mounds of wood ants and seeing capercaillie, there are still crested tits, crossbills, red deer, pine martens and, most likely, Scottish wildcats to be discovered. The vegetation is different, too, with shaded areas holding rich communities of uncommon lichens, ferns and liverworts. At the entrance of the glen there are a few ancient specimens of sessile oak, and the river Affric at either end of Loch Benevean contains dippers, grey wagtails and goosanders. Laurie Campbell s Life in the WildIn wetter areas, bogs are home to a high percentage of all the dragonfly and damselfly species found in Scotland, including rarities such as azure-hawkers. On a workshop at the nearby Aigas Field Centre in early June this year, we watched northern emerald dragonflies, while a couple of weeks earlier a guest at Aigas photographed an adder —a species Inever even seen before in Glen Affric despite almost three decades of visiting. During another Aigas visit, in May, we discovered a hugely impressive timberman longhorn beetle whose improbably long antennae spanned at least 15 centimetres. With such distractions, our group never did make it to my favourite dragonfly loch that afternoon. Looking back to a time early in my career when month-long field trips were common, my most enduring memory of Glen Affric is that it was the first place j that I ever photographed a pine marten. Rather naively, Istarted I baiting them with raspberry jam; nothing wrong with that, except that my timing was all wrong. I began in late summer —when the shortening hours of daylight meant the martens had more leeway to pick and choose when they came under cover of darkness —which resulted in me having to endure all-night vigils. Early June would have been a better time, but Ibeen inspired to try in late summer after seeing numerous piles of partly digested rowan berries deposited in pine marten scat all along the forest tracks and paths. I eventually obtained a few photographs of the martens. My diaries and slide collection from that time reveal that, thanks to a series of hot days and chilly nights, the long vigils were also rewarded by eight consecutive mornings of dense mist. I made the most of it by setting off before dawn each day to climb a different hill on either side of the glen until I rose above the mist and could see the sunrise. When the midges allowed, I just stood and stared. It was as if Ibeen transported back to another epoch. By 7am, it was over and I retired to my camper for breakfast and some sleep, uneasy with the thought that anyone visiting the glen in the middle of the day just wasngoing to see it at its primeval best. Laurie Campbell s Life in the WildExploring Glen Affric Although Glen Affric is often said to be one of the most beautiful glens in Scotland, all is not quite what it seems. The clue lies in the shoreline of Loch Benevean. Look closely and you may notice that it contains little in the way of marginal vegetation and that it is composed of a band of exposed rock and gravel. These aren t worn smooth, as is the case with long-established natural lochs, because this one was largely man-made in the 1950s, when there was a drive to create a network of hydroelectric dams in the Highlands. The unnatural shoreline is simply a by-product of fluctuating water levels, but without the dam we might not have the charming wooded islands that lie at eastern end of the loch. Much of Glen Affric is owned and managed by the Forestry Commission, which has created some excellent facilities for visitors, including a number of way-marked paths and public car parks, with toilet facilities. Another organisation that is directly involved in conservation in part of the glen is Trees for Life (TFL). Established over 20 years ago, they recently celebrated the planting of their one-millionth tree. TFL leads work weeks, during which volunteers are involved in collecting pine seed, planting it in their own tree nursery and then planting it back out on the hill. The emphasis is on working only with seed that is genetically pure to that area. They also work with propagating other species, such as aspen, which are all component species of Caledonian pine forest. To protect the newly planted seedlings from the mouths of deer, enclosures have been erected that dramatically increase the chances of the seeds —sourced from mature, established trees —surviving. You only need to look at the pages of the TFL website, www.treesforlife.org.uk, to see the remarkable difference this inspirational initiative has made.

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