Category Archives: fauna

Walk : Acharacle to Laga

In 2005 the Land Reform (Scotland) Act came into force. This wonderful piece of legislation gives everyone rights of access over land and inland water throughout Scotland.

These rights are sometimes referred to as ‘freedom to roam’ or ‘right to roam’.

There are specific exclusions e.g. fields with growing crops, gardens (!), and there is a requirement to behave responsibly. All very reasonable.

Without this legislation, walking would often be restricted to rights of way such as footpaths and bridlepaths, often long-established.

And Ardnamurchan has relatively few of these.

Coast to coast

The settlements on Ardnamurchan are situated on the periphery of the peninsula. The sheltered moorings at Salen, Glenborrodale bay with its castle and Kilchoan on the southern shoreline. Sanna, the hamlets of Kilmory and Ockle on the north coast, and Acharacle at the mouth of Loch Shiel.

Ardnamurchan peninsula

These places are still linked by tracks across the relatively barren hinterland. On the north shore of Loch Sunart the winding B8007 presumably follows a historic cart track and, before then, a route used by farmers going to and from Ardgour.

However, along the north coast and linking the north and south coasts, a number of tracks remain. These provide relatively unchallenging walking over some beautiful empty hills and moors, often offering stunning views across the peninsula.

One of my favourites is the track from Acharacle to Glenborrodale.

Kentra Moss

Recent forestry activity at the Glenborrodale end of the track has made access more difficult (more on this later) and left an ugly scar on the landscape.

I therefore recommend walking north to south (starting from Acharacle) and deviating from the Glenborrodale track to instead finish at Laga.

Acharacle and Kentra Moss

The easiest point to start from is Acharacle Primary School (NM 67448 68069). This is a short walk north along the A861 from the bustling metropolis of Acharacle.

Don’t let the the ‘A’ prefix on the road number mislead you. Parts of it are single track.

Acharacle, Arivegaig and Kentra Moss

There’s a small parking area just west of the school, with a gate leading to the track to Arevigaig that winds through the Bealach Clach an Aighe 1.

Kentra Moss

You emerge from the scrubby mixed birch woodland onto the south eastern edge of Kentra Moss. This, together with Claish Moss on the southern shore of Loch Shiel, is one of the rare ‘eccentric’ mires in the UK. This habitat is characterised by oceanic blanket bog, rich in mosses, sphagnum, cross-leaved heath and bogbean.

Stick to the track. This amount of sphagnum doesn’t flourish without very large amounts of water. The raised bog isn’t safe to walk on, and would be damaged if you did.

Kentra Moss … very wet everywhere

Kentra Moss is a great place for dragonflies and insectivorous plants, neither of which I’m much good at identifying. During the summer months the bird life is good, with a number of different breeding waders.

A couple of hundred metres after the track bears west you come to a junction with a concrete bridge over one of the many burns that drains the bog. Turn left here (bearing south) on a recently upgraded track leading up away from Kentra Moss into the low hills.

Kentra Moss – track junction looking north

To see more of Kentra Moss there’s also a circular walk that follows the track on to Arivegaig.

Waterworks

There is a new water purification plant up the hill above Kentra Moss. The track goes past a large agricultural-looking building and a water tank with a fabulous view across Kentra Bay to Eigg and Rum before abruptly petering out at a gate held closed with a rusty chain.

View across Kentra Bay to Eigg and Rum.

The track changes from reasonably well-graded crushed rock to a more typical gnarly mountain track, largely suitable for a good 4WD vehicle, an Argo ATV, a mountain bike (and fit rider) or Vibram-soled boots.

Here, and increasingly on the route south, the track offers the ‘path of least’ resistance to water, so it’s not unusual to be walking up a shallow stream.

There’s plenty of evidence of the previous glaciation of the region, with rocks bearing characteristic linear scarring where glaciers have advanced or retreated.

Glacier was ‘ere

The track climbs gently before cresting the ridge and dropping to a sturdy wooden bridge over the Allt Beithe (Birch stream).

Bridge over Allt Beithe

After crossing the stream the track gets smaller and wetter, climbing across the hill in a south-easterly direction towards Beinn Laga.

As the track approaches Loch Laga the land levels out and it gets very wet underfoot. The water just stands around waiting to overtop your boots, rather than conveniently running away downhill.

But the view opens out to the south and east, particularly if you climb a little way above the track (but don’t leave a cairn to spoil the landscape for others). It feels remote but isn’t really.

The Sunart hills

On a poor day, with heavy cloud and squally showers, the views are less good, or potentially non-existent. However, don’t forget to scan the surrounding ridges for eagles – I’ve often seen them here, particularly when the weather is less than favourable.

Loch Laga

Loch Laga lies in the boggy ground between Meall nan Each and Ben Laga, east of the Fiddler’s Slab (Leac an Fhidhleir). There’s a small corrugated fishing hut at Loch Laga and I assume the fishing is controlled by the Ardnamurchan Estate, though I’ve not been able to confirm this.

Approaching Loch Laga.

It’s an exposed spot and it’s not unusual for the loch to be covered in short, white-capped waves. This is a good place to see both red and black throated divers. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of them bred on the small rocky island in the Loch.

Loch Laga

As the track skirts the west shore of the loch it is indistinct in places and heavily eroded in others, with the latter likely due to over-enthusiastic (or ambitious) access with an Argo on the peaty soil.

The track rises gently, curving in a more westerly direction. About half a mile after the fishing hut there’s a small cairn in the heather on the left side of the track (NM636632).

This marks the junction with a smaller track leading to Laga.

Cairn do

From the Acharacle to Glenborrodale track, this spur off to Laga is almost invisible. Perhaps this is one of the few times when a cairn is useful. Approaching from the west there’s a tendency to turn south too soon and the ground is very rough and boggy. Not recommended.

After a hundred metres or so the track rises on a rocky spur leading south. Underfoot the going is good except for a few extensively boggy areas. None of these offer too much of a problem if you’re willing to skirt around them and take a ‘leap of faith’ (from one semi-dry tussock to another) a few times.

Track to Laga

The track descends very gently towards Laga. With every step the views across Morvern, the Isle of Carna and Loch Sunart increase and improve.

Keep an eye on the rocky ridge of Ben Laga to your east. This is a good place to see eagles, though the prevailing wind tends to need to be south-westerly or westerly.

From outside in – Laga Farm native woodland

The descent steepens and a deer fence appears to the west. This marks the boundary of the Laga Farm native woodland development.

The end is nigh

In a fold in the hillside a heavy angled gate appears in the deer fence which enables you to cross into the land enclosed by the Laga Farm fencing.

From inside out – open moorland to the east of the Laga Farm native woodland enclosed area

Within metres the difference is striking.

Inside the protective deer fence there are trees growing all over the place. Inevitably some of these will have been planted, but many of the birches, rowan etc will be self-seeded.

In contrast, outside the fence, the moorland is barren with barely a tree in sight. The only exceptions are those growing in inaccessible clefts on the steepest slopes, or in the ravines through which the streams tumble.

This is compelling evidence that there are too many deer.

Laga Farm native woodland, looking south across Loch Sunart to Morvern

The next kilometre or so are increasingly steep and increasingly wooded. It’s lovely now and it’s getting better year after year as the trees mature.

The gravelly and rocky path still offers the ‘path of least resistance’ to water which, in turn, provides miniature pools for dragonflies to lay eggs, like this golden-ringed dragonfly.

Finally the track levels out and you reach a gate through the deer fencing which brings you out onto the B8007.

Turn left for the fleshpots of Salen and all points east, turn right for civilisation, Glenborrodale and Kilchoan.

Loch Sunart, near Laga

It’s worth noting that parking at Laga is very restricted. The road is single track and the passing places are heavily used for, er, passing. Don’t park in them! Laga Bay is also the base for Mowi in this part of the loch and some gateways are used for lorries turning. Finally, Laga is the base for Ardnamurchan Charters (ferry to Mull, Carna and wildlife trips) and their parking area should not be used.

Alternative ending

Rather than turn south at the cairned turn (NM636632) shortly after Loch Laga you can keep on the main track to Glenborrodale. The route turns more westerly and eventually turns south into Glen Borrodale. The going underfoot is much like the first half of the route, with some spectacularly wet and soggy bits.

The route crosses a couple of good-sized burns and bridges ensure your already soaked footwear doesn’t get any wetter 😉

Bridge over the Allt something or other

As the route bears south into Glen Borrodale there are a number of deer fences to negotiate. This area has recently been clear-felled and it is a rather barren and unattractive landscape. The track improves and so do the height of the deer fences.

If you are lucky the gates will be unlocked. If you’re unlucky you will have to scale the 8 foot fences. In several visits over the last couple of years I’ve been lucky about 50% of the time.

Trees were here … but won’t be again for a long time

So much for the ‘right to roam’.

This is a well-established route between Glenborrodale and Acharacle and is in many of the guidebooks to the area.

The deer fences 2 are to protect the thousands of young (native thankfully) trees planted in the felled and adjacent areas of moorland. At my last visit these were only 30 – 60 cm tall, so there’s some way to go before the forestry-induced scarring is hidden again.

The track finally descends through the Glenborrodale woodchip plant and emerges on the B8007.

There are more places to park near Glenborrodale but the deforested landscape, locked gates and less impressive views make the Laga end to the walk preferable in my opinion.

Loch Laga

The Acharacle – Laga walk is about 6 miles. The alternative ending in Glenborrodale is probably a mile or so longer.

The route and going underfoot is easy to moderate but remember to wear appropriate footwear and take waterproofs. This near to the Atlantic the weather can change – and often does – in minutes.


 

Deer and reforestation

The moist and mild climate of Ardnamurchan provides almost ideal conditions for the germination of plants and trees. Wherever you walk, if you look carefully, you can find miniature birch, diminutive rowans or little oak trees.

Birch seedling

Parts of the peninsula have extensive broadleaved woodland and the area is famous for its oakwoods around Salen and Ariundle. We have hazel copses, a large amount of willow and alder carr, some grand old oaks and lots of birch.

Or lots of rhododendron, depending where you look, though it is gradually being cut back.

Mixed established deciduous woodland has excellent biodiversity and oak trees are famed for having more associated species of wildlife – including bacteria and fungi, lichens, free algae, mosses, vascular plants, invertebrate animals, birds and mammals – than any other tree in the UK.

Oak, late November

However, unfortunately, it’s true to say that on Ardnamurchan – and in lots of other places in the Highlands – mighty oaks from little acorns do not grow 1.

The missing generation

It’s easy to find seedlings a few inches high and the mature trees are obvious. What’s missing, or at least significantly under-represented, are saplings and small bushes.

For example, we have two or three rowans (mountain ash) close by the house. All are mature trees (~15+ feet tall) laden with berries from late summer onwards. All spring and summer I’ve been finding 3-5″ tall (short?) rowan seedlings, perfect in everything but stature.

But there are no rowans on the plot that are waist or head height.

It’s all, or almost nothing.

Well, not quite. You can find these missing generation(s) of spindly saplings growing from cracks in steep rock faces or other inaccessible spots.

You can also find a few shin-high, multiply-branched, twiggy, de-leaved, stunted specimens. These often have fat little trunks and extensive root systems, out of proportion to the tree height, like a poor quality bonsai.

Browsed rowan

The grim reaper

The inaccessible saplings and the thick-limbed but dwarfed individuals give an obvious clue as to the fate of the missing generation.

They are being, or have been, browsed to extinction.

There’s no regeneration of native woodland because as soon as a tree is tall enough to be noticed it’s a midnight snack for deer.

On very steep slopes the deer cannot graze so the saplings escape. However, there’s often little soil present, or the ground is unstable, or it dries out too much, so the tree never reaches maturity.

Accessible saplings get grazed and grazed again. The new juicy growing tips are nibbled away, leaving ever-thickening twiggy branches. Year after year this results in a stunted, distorted little bush, with lots of woody growth but few leaves.

Too much of a good thing

There are six species of deer in the UK – red, roe, fallow, sika, muntjac and Chinese water deer. Of these, the first two are native to the UK with the rest being imported. However, fallow deer were here before the last ice age and were re-introduced after the Norman Conquest (11th Century).

Red and (particularly) roe deer are widespread and, in places, common.

Deer … they’re everywhere

Too common.

In Scotland, red deer densities (PDF) can be greater than 30 per km2 in places, with very high levels in the Grampians and north and west of the Great Glen.

It is estimated that the current red deer population in Scotland is in excess of 450,000 head. This number has increased at least three-fold since 1959 when The Deer (Scotland) Act was introduced in response to a growing awareness of the damage to agricultural crops and native woodland.

In 1959 the recommendation was that an optimum number of red deer in Scotland was ~60,000. ‘Optimum’ in terms of reducing crop damage and allowing natural reforestation without ugly and expensive fencing.

Presumably not ‘optimum’ in terms of animals available for stalking. Which is a significant part of the problem …

Simon Pepper (ex-WWF Director for Scotland and Deer Commission) has written a brief account of “the deer problem” in Scotland and Reforesting Scotland nicely describe the impact and management of deer. I won’t rehash the case they make here but I think it’s compelling.

The camera never lies

Our plot is not fenced and deer regularly come down off the hill or out of the surrounding woodland. I occasionally spook them when I’m wandering about clearing rhododendron or birdwatching. At night their visits become more frequent … we might not see or hear them but the dog detects them with her ultra-sensitive radar and growls quietly.

They trample regular ‘game trails’ across parts of the plot, moving from one block of woodland to another during the night, or going down to the shore.

I’ve positioned a trail cam in likely looking spots and regularly ‘see’ red deer and, about 10-fold less frequently, roe deer. Whether this reflects the population density of the two species or is a consequence of the locations used for the camera is unclear.

It’s very common to ‘see’ a red deer hind with a calf in tow. Stags are a lot less frequent.

At times they descend from the hill mob-handed, late in the evening, intent on the destruction of almost everything except rhododendron (which unfortunately they don’t eat due to the grayanotoxins in the leaves).

Reforestation and stalking

It’s ironic that deer are woodland animals, yet their presence in large numbers prevents the regeneration of the forests in which they should flourish. Red deer from open moorland are smaller, less well conditioned and have higher winter mortality than woodland deer.

Inevitably, large scale culls have been unpopular with the general public and the landowners who provide stalking.

Importantly though they have been effective. They have reduced the numbers of deer on the land and have allowed the natural regeneration of forest without the need for fencing (which brings its own problems).

Richard Baynes has written about the consequences of the deer cull in Glen Feshie, both in terms of the uproar in the shooting community and in the resulting improvement in reforestation. The income from stalking is the same now as before the cull; clients are “prepared to pay more to hunt a scarcer, wilder animal”.

For a more extensive discussion of reforestation and biodiversity, accompanied by outstanding photographs, I recommend you have a look at Alan Watson Featherstone’s blog.

Solutions

I love deer.

Particularly braised slowly with a good quality, full-bodied red and winter vegetables 😉

However, I don’t like venison so much I could make a serious dent in the local population of deer.

Therefore, other measures are needed to deter deer and to encourage the regeneration of trees. In turn this will decrease the triffid-like invasion by rhododendron and increase the native wildflowers and understory vegetation.

Deer fencing remains an option but is unsightly, expensive and – because of access issues  – would require gates and/or cattle grids. Properly maintained it is the only certain way to exclude deer.

Lion dung has proved tricky to source, but may not be effective anyway.

I’ve planted a few tree seedlings ‘rescued’ from inaccessible areas, together with a dozen or so willow ‘sticks’ to provide early season pollen for bees. Several of these have already been decimated by the deer.

Transplanted rowan seedling

I’ve therefore protected some with mesh tree guards to help them get well-established.

I’m intending to plant another hundred or so bareroot native trees this autumn. Rather than littering the plot with dozens of unsightly corrugated tubes I’m hoping to exploit the topography to barricade access points, only putting tree guards around the saplings on the periphery. Additional temporary fencing will be added where needed if the barricades alone prove to be ineffective.

Willow cutting with tree guard

Or when … 🙁


Notes

Laga Farm on Ardnamurchan has a large fenced area of hillside overlooking Laga Bay in which native trees have been planted. The sparse woodland is only six years old but is already developing really well and is wildlife-rich … and will undoubtedly get better. In addition to the planted trees there is also a large amount of natural tree regeneration now that the deer are excluded.

Laga Farm Native Woodland

Wordless Wednesday #1


Wordless Wednesday posts are images from Ardnamurchan and the surrounding regions – Sunart, Morvern, Ardgour, Moidart and the Rough Bounds. They have no accompanying text or description. I will try and ensure they were photographed in the same month, though not necessarily the same year, that they appear online.

I hope you enjoy them.