Visiting the Land of the Fairies

Today I climbed up Ben Shee whilst admiring the magical, new (…relatively new) woodlands that are being established in Glen Sherup. To explain the title, Ben Shee’s name derives from the gaelic word ‘sith’, which is a conical hill that was associated with fairies. Well, the fairies round here have clearly switched their magic dust for saplings!

Glen Sherup is a wee glen on the other side of the Ochil Hills to Dollar (where I currently reside) and is part of the Glen Devon Woodlands, a Woodland Trust property. It’s a nice area of native trees that have been planted on what I can only assume used to be grazed uplands.

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I have been planning to visit this area just to see what can be accomplished by a community, and to see how these new native woodlands establish themselves over time. Ideally, I’ll return again in spring/summer to see the flora in bloom, and then return again in a few years to see how well the woodland is doing, how the landscape has changed, and basically to enjoy myself as it is a very nice place.

I started my wander in the car park, and walked up towards Glensherup Reservoir through the spruce plantations that cloak the hillside on the opposite side of the glen to the woodlands I was interested in.

 

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Sitka Spruce Picea sitchensis

There are some plantations that aren’t too bad, not too dense, bit of an understory able to develop, some different species mixed in. This is not one of them, ranks upon ranks of Sitka Spruce Picea sitchensis stretching across the hillside, all the same age, all the same height, tightly packed, ugh. Fortunately I didn’t have to stay here long, and made my way across the top of the dam to where I wanted to be.

The hillside looks pretty bare at a quick glance, I’ll be honest. But take a little closer look and it is speckled with trees all over the place. The most obvious being silver birch Betula pendula which covered vast areas. Anyway, as I made my way through the gate I felt a lot more welcome than I had when visiting Rough Moss Cleuch, with a welcome sign, a nice stile-type thing and no shotgun cartridges strewn about the place. Although, thinking about access, that stile isn’t particularly friendly to disabled or elderly people.

Also notice how the fences have all been kitted out with bamboo sticks to deter low-flying birds from doing damage to themselves, as black grouse Lyrurus tetrix have been found to be lekking in this area. This species isn’t doing great in the Ochils so clearly this new habitat is helping them out.

I never did see any grouse but did manage to see one species I wanted to see, just because I don’t see it very often. Juniper Juniperus communis has been planted on this hill and I really hope it does well as it’s such a nice plant. I don’t know why I’m drawn to it, probably because it’s the native conifer that is least common.

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Juniper with the vast swathes of sitka in the background

It was also nice to see great wood-rush Luzula sylvatica and foxglove Digitalis purpurea, a couple of woodland species, still clinging on in what was once open grassland but is now thankfully being reverted back. I’m sure they’ll spread as the trees mature.

Trees noted on my climb up included the expected silver birch Betula pendula and sessile oak Quercus petraea (been told the pic of leaf below is in fact Quercus x rosacea, the hybrid between sessile and pendunculate oak), but also a rich smorgasbord of other lovely natives. I’m trying out a new way of photographing plants at the moment which involves turning on the flash, setting ISO at 100, setting to Macro Zoom, and turning down the shutter time (I think that’s what turning the wee wheel does). Gives quite a nice effect in my humble opinion.

The first picture here shows a pretty heavily browsed sessile oak Quercus petraea and I found that I was seeing more browsing damage on oaks than any other species, some of them reduced to barely a half a metre high with tiny, short twigs poking off the main stem. I didn’t see any roe deer Capreolus capreolus here but did see signs of them and heard one bark as I was on the way up the hill.

The fence around Glen Sherup woods would appear to be a deer fence but I suppose they’ve found a way in somehow. Here’s a picture of some deer from Portmoak Moss (another Woodland Trust site) yesterday.

 

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One tree species I was surprised not to see was Scots pine Pinus sylvestris but upon arrival at the peak of Ben Shee, it appeared that only some areas had been planted with Scots pine. I guess this is because this species will do better than most deciduous trees given the climatic and environmental conditions so the Woodland Trust are allowing some areas to be pine-free?

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An area with Scots pine mixed in on the West side of Ben Shee

In terms of ground flora, we’ve already seen the great wood-rush Luzula sylvatica that surrounded some of the juniper juniperus communis bushes. As this was once grazed grassland, there are patches of bracken Pteridium aquilinum amongst the trees but I think bracken is a bit shade-intolerant so once the trees mature a bit the bracken will hopefully reduce in its abundance.

Other areas were covered in raspberries Rubus idaeus, rosebay willowherb Chamaerion angustifolium and many grasses that I will be able to identify later in the year. I promise.

As I gained a bit of altitude I was happy to see that blaeberry Vaccinium myrtillus became the norm amongst the grasses, and patches of Polytrichum strictum, P. commune  and Sphagnum appeared (I suspect S. capillifolium). Most surprising though was cowberry Vaccinium vitis-idaea which I’d thought would have been grazed out of existence on Ben Shee.

It was quite refreshing to not come across any heather Calluna vulgaris at all in the Glen Sherup woods, makes a change from most upland areas. I also came across a few patches of dog lichen Peltigera sp. which are really nice to see and photograph. A strange thing when you first discover them.

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Speaking of dog, having seen plenty flora I didn’t see much fauna. The roe deer Capreolus capreolus was heard and tracked, red fox Vulpes vulpes was also tracked as was bank vole Myodes glareolus. They were very active in the areas of great wood-rush Luzula sylvatica in particular (making a lot of rustling noises) and I even found some droppings in a wee opening to a tunnel system.

You may notice there’s one non-mammalian photo there. This fox moth caterpillar Macrothylacia rubi was up at the peak of Ben Shee (515m) looking a little cold so I hollowed out a bit in the grass, closer to the ground and placed it in there in hopes it warms up a little. There’s plenty for it to eat up there!

Birds weren’t seen much either but I’ll be honest, I wasn’t looking very hard! Three stonechats Saxicola rubicola, a few meadow pipits Anthus pratensis and a couple of ravens Corvus corax were all of note up the hill but short-eared owl, black grouse, kestrel and plenty more are up there. I’ll go back another time of year in better conditions for the birds!

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Stonechat and meadow pipit

So, to conclude: I love this place. The sight of a landscape that is on its way to being restored to it’s natural state excites me, especially when it’s just through the valley from where I’m staying. Seeing species manage to reclaim areas that they once lived in, such as Black grouse Lyrurus tetrix, not to mention all the native trees that had been grazed to oblivion, is great to see.

Lastly, from the top of Ben Shee I could look northwards towards Crieff through the Glen of Eagles. Who knows, perhaps with enough work and perseverance (and time obviously) we may see eagles return to the Ochils..!

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Visiting the Land of the Fairies

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