Our first meeting in the flesh for almost 2 years, ten of us turned out to visit the Corrour Estate in the West Highlands. Our host, Sarah Watts, is now the Conservation Manager, also pursuing a part time PhD looking at the montane species, and she gave us a brief overview of the estate.
Corrour is a substantial skelp of land, at 23000 ha, with the owners now embracing conservation as a main objective. The most impressive stat of the day came from the recent helicopter deer count, now down to less than 1/100ha after a big effort by the stalking team in recent years.
Three of the montane willows are present on Corrour, but only as scattered small populations, in some locations just a few plants on steep crags and ledges … Downy Salix lapponum, Mountain S. arbuscula and Whortle Leaved S. myrsinites. Otherwise Tea-leaved S. phylicifolia is more frequent, found on the crags and along some of the burns. Additionally, Eared S. aurita and Creeping S. repens are fairly widespread. Dwarf birch B nana, is occasional to frequent in blanket bog habitat, with some impressive unbrowsed individuals. It’s hoped that all will respond to the reduced browsing pressure.
We drove up through the estate, passing through some of the 4000 ha of commercial forest now being restructured. The tracks are popular routes for walkers and cyclists, with the famed hostel a welcome retreat en route.
The weather was sunny, warm and not a midge to bite! Tramping off up the hill we paused whilst JH, eagle eyed, pointed out a nice wet flush with the diminutive bog orchids Hammarbya paludosa in flower. Eared willow and rowan are getting away, now frequent in the sward. Up along the steeper south west facing slopes, around 500m asl, there was a great display of tall herbs … angelica, valerian, wood cranesbill, melancholy thistle, plus species more familiar from lower elevations, bugle, pignut and yarrow ... in a wonderful wild garden. We passed an outcrop where a few isolated trees had got away years ago ... rowan and birch. On the crags above a stand of aspen, with abundant suckers now spreading below for tens of metres either way. A kestrel hovering over the edge. Lovely views of Loch Ossian and hills to the west.
The willows have survived growing out from the steep slopes in the classic spear fashion, along and upward, to avoid the browsing pressure. Now began our identification challenges. We puzzled over a substantial small tree ... its stem fallen and dead now, but regrowing from the base … shiny leaves, yet with stipules … were we also seeing some blackening of leaves which could indicate some Dark leaved willow S myrsinifolia genes? Further on, and above us, the silvery green of lapponum foliage was distinctive. A single Dwarf Juniper Juniperus communis subsp. nana was a notable record. Also a rogue alien, Berberis sp? … presumably escaped from the lodge garden.
Onward and upward, the group now down to an intrepid six, clambering with some tricky handholds, we again puzzled over the features of some plants … yellowish stems, slightly serrated leaf margins, stipules. Hybridisation is not kind to the lumpers nor to the splitters!
Although there is a relatively small area of native woodland planting elsewhere on the estate, the aim is to use regeneration as much as possible. However, given the small size of the willow populations Sarah has been taking cuttings and collecting seed to grow on. Some discussion took place about genetics (see Best Practice Guide 1) and the need to bring in additional variety.
It was 1800 by the time we got back to the cars, altogether an inspiring day! Thanks Sarah, and to Diana who arranged the visit.