Alan Watson Featherstone, Founder of Trees for Life, writes about his experiences out in the Caledonian Forest, and about his work for the charity.


Winter meets autumn in Glen Affric

Autumn leaves of a large eared willow (Salix aurita) with birch trees (Betula pendula and Betula pubescens) behind, in the first snow of winter, near Dog Falls in Glen Affric.

Autumn leaves of a large eared willow (Salix aurita) with birch trees (Betula pendula and Betula pubescens) behind, in the first snow of winter, near Dog Falls in Glen Affric.

At the end of November, the weather in the Highlands turned cold after having been relatively mild throughout most of the autumn. The unseasonably warm temperatures we’d had in October and much of November resulted in many of the deciduous leaves remaining on the trees for longer than usual. So it was that when it finally became colder and the first snowfall took place, we had what is a relatively rare experience in Scotland – fresh snow on the autumn-coloured leaves of the trees.

Eared willow (Salix aurita) with its last leaves in their autumn colour, with fresh snow on the birch trees behind.

Eared willow (Salix aurita) with its last leaves in their autumn colour, with fresh snow on the birch trees behind, near Dog Falls.

Heading out to Glen Affric for the day, I was hoping to make the most of this opportunity to document two seasons simultaneously. As I drove up into the glen and got as far as Dog Falls, I found various eared willow bushes (Salix aurita) and hazel trees (Corylus avellana) that still had some brightly-coloured leaves on them. These were standing out vividly from the white background, and as I got out of the car, it began to snow heavily, adding to the layer of frozen moisture that was sticking to every branch of the trees.

Closer view of some of the eared willow leaves (Salix aurita) covered in snow.

Closer view of some of the eared willow leaves (Salix aurita) covered in snow.

Autumn-coloured leaves of the eared willow (Salix aurita) cover in fresh snow.

Autumn-coloured leaves of the eared willow (Salix aurita) cover in fresh snow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another of eared willow leaves (Salix aurita) covered in snow.

Another cluster of eared willow leaves (Salix aurita) covered in snow.

 

The snow shower only lasted for a few minutes, but it turned out to be the first of many short but intense squalls or blizzards that blew through the glen during the day while I was there.

Birch trees (Betula pubescens and Betula pendula) with their branches covered in fresh snow, near Dog Falls.

Birch trees (Betula pubescens and Betula pendula) with their branches covered in fresh snow, near Dog Falls.

 

 

 

 

Eared willow (Salix aurita) with its leaves in autumn colour below the lichen-covered trunk and branches of a silver rich (Betula pendula).

Eared willow (Salix aurita) with its leaves in autumn colour below the lichen-covered trunk and branches of a silver birch (Betula pendula).

 

 

Another view of the eared willow (Salix aurita) below the lichen-covered trunk and branches of a silver birch tree (Betula pendula).

Another view of the eared willow (Salix aurita) below the lichen-covered trunk and branches of a silver birch tree (Betula pendula).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With its lichen-bejewelled branches reaching out like arms, I could almost imagine this old silver birch (Betula pendula) moving like Treebeard through the forest.

With its lichen-bejewelled branches reaching out like arms, I could almost imagine this old silver birch (Betula pendula) striding ponderously like Treebeard through the forest.

The snow seemed to enhance the personality or character of the trees, particularly some of the old lichen-encrusted silver birches (Betula pendula), giving them a presence similar to that of the Ents in Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’. Treebeard is the best-known of the Ents, due to the success of the films based on the book, and the parallel is perhaps quite fitting, considering that many of the most prominent lichens on this birch are beard lichens (Usnea filipendula). In the absence of Ents to protect the forest in Glen Affric, it’s up to people to do so instead, and it was that calling which led me to found the Trees for Life project to help restore the Caledonian Forest in 1986.

Closer view of the beard lichens (Usnea filipendula) on the branches of the silver birch (Betula pendula).

Closer view of some of the beard lichens (Usnea filipendula) on the branches of the silver birch (Betula pendula).

It felt very special to be in the glen on this magical day of two seasons existing simultaneously, side by side. There was a special atmospheric quality about the forest, which seemed to enhance the life-force and presence of the trees, and the arboreal lichens they were supporting, despite the fact that much of their energy was withdrawn into their roots for the winter. Lichens of course persist throughout the year, and are more visible when the trees are leafless. They are also especially vibrant on days like this one when there is a lot of moisture in the air.

Another view of the dead alder snag and the eared willow with its leaves covered in snow.

Another view of the dead alder snag and the eared willow with its leaves in autumn coloration.

In between the squalls the wind was blowing intermittently, so the snow wasn’t persisting on the small branches and twigs, but it was remaining on the larger areas of wood, such as the branch stubs of a dead alder tree (Alnus glutinosa).

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Dead alder trees (Alnus glutinosa) or snags with snow on them, amongst the eared willow (Salix aurita), and with birches behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The alder snag on the right here reminded me of the dancing form of a Hindu deity, in its elegant and curved shape.

The alder snag on the right here reminded me of the dancing form of a Hindu deity, in its elegant and curved shape.

One of the alder snags in particular had a very evocative shape, which was highlighted and enhanced by the snow, and seemed almost like the fluid, dancing shape of a deity from the Hindu pantheon, such as Shiva or Kali. In my mind I imagined that over the lifetime of this tree, a sequence of time lapse photographs might have shown its growth and changing shape in a dynamic sequence that resembled the dances of eastern cultures, such as those of India and Thailand.

Details of the eared willow bush (Salix aurita), with snow accumulating on the larger branch but not on the twigs or leaves.

Detail of the eared willow bush (Salix aurita), with snow accumulating on the larger branch but not on the twigs or leaves.

I was quite enthralled by the visual combination of the bright yellow leaves of the eared willow together with the pure white of the fresh snow, and spent a while watching this scene. It was in fact constantly changing, as each squall deposited some more snow, only for the wind to remove it in the periods between the snow showers. It was another example of the dynamic variation in Nature, and a reminder that although I often think a place is the same all the time, in fact the reality is that is always different, if I take the time to observe and appreciate it for a while.

Another view of the lichen-covered silver birch (Betula pendula), with another brick trunk and some bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) in the foreground.

Another view of the lichen-covered silver birch (Betula pendula), with a birch trunk and some bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) in the foreground.

The temperature was fluctuating just above freezing point, and those variations, together with the wind, meant that the amount of snow lying on the ground and on the vegetation was constantly coming and going, almost like the tide on a shore line. It was as though the weather couldn’t make up its mind as to whether it was really going to be winter, or whether it was going to let autumn, with the bright yellows of the eared willow matched by the reddish-brown of the last of the bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), persist for a little longer.

Dog rose (Rosa canina) still with its leaves on, and birch trunks behind.

Dog rose (Rosa canina) still with its leaves on, and birch trunks behind.

I walked a little more to the east, further downstream from Dog Falls, and was surprised to see a very large dog rose (Rosa canina) still with all its leaves, just below the road. It’s one of the largest of its species I’ve seen in the Highlands and I estimated it must have been close to six metres in height. It had multiple stems, and was spreading over quite a large area, with its vertical extent helped by the proximity of several birch trunks, which must have forced the dog rose to grow taller than it usually does in Glen Affric, reaching towards the light.

Closer view of the dog rose (Rosa canina), showing the colour change taking place in the leaves, and the abundant rosehips.

Closer view of the dog rose (Rosa canina), showing the colour change taking place in the leaves, and the abundant rosehips.

This section of the Affric River here, between Dog Falls and Badger Falls further downstream to the east, is the richest in the glen in terms of its tree species. In addition to the common birches, Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) and rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) of other parts of Glen Affric, this area has wych elm (Ulmus glabra), ash (Fraxinus excelsior), oak (Quercus petraea), goat willow (Salix caprea), aspen (Populus tremula), hazel (Corylus avellana) and hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) growing there.

Another view of the leaves and rosehips of the dog rose (Rosa canina).

Another view of the leaves and rosehips of the dog rose (Rosa canina).

This is the result of several factors, including the relatively sheltered nature of the area due to the narrowness of the gorge, the mainly south-facing aspect and the comparatively rich soils, as indicated by the presence of dense bracken and other plants such as dogs mercury (Mercurialis perennis). This same combination of factors is probably what enabled this dog rose to grow so large, and I was surprised that I hadn’t noticed it before. It was only now, with its leaves making it stand out from the surrounding leafless trees, that I had discovered it, although I’ve passed it by hundreds of times before – there is always something new in Nature, even in an area like this that I think I’m very familiar with.

Another view of the hazel trees (Corylus avellana) with the last of their leaves on them.

Another view of the hazel trees (Corylus avellana) with the last of their leaves on them.

These young hazels (Corylus avellana) beside the road still had the last few of their leaves holding out on their branches against the snow and cold.

These young hazels (Corylus avellana) beside the road still had the last few of their leaves holding out on their branches against the snow and cold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are a lot of young hazels growing beside the road in this part of the glen, and perhaps it was because of their youthful vigour that they still had some leaves on them, whereas the older hazels had already lost all of theirs.

Just a few leaves were all that remained on these slightly larger hazels.

Just a few leaves were all that remained on these slightly larger hazels.

Some intermediate-aged hazels had a very few leaves still on their branches, all of them yellow and soon to be shed. Each individual leaf seemed to act as a colourful visual counterpoint to the otherwise grey and white monotones of the background, which was delineated by the vertical linear pattern of the hazel and birch trunks. To my eye, it was another expression of Nature’s endless artistry, in this case taking the form of a rather minimalist style.

Here, these very young hazel saplings, at the edge of the road, still had almost all of their leaves, in contrast to the larger hazels behind, which were already leafless.

Here, these very young hazel saplings, at the edge of the road, still had almost all of their leaves, in contrast to the larger hazels behind, which were already leafless.

I’d not noticed this phenomenon before, of the younger hazels retaining their leaves for a longer time than the more mature trees, but it seemed quite obvious this day. I wondered if it’s similar to the characteristic called marcescence, whereby the younger individuals of some trees such as oaks (Quercus spp.) and beech (Fagus sylvatica) retain their dead leaves throughout the entire winter period? These hazel leaves were indeed being shed, but just later than those of the older trees, so perhaps it’s a less-developed version of the marcescence of those other tree species?

Fallen hazel leaf, still in its bright autumn coloration, on a bed of snow.

Fallen hazel leaf, still in its bright autumn coloration, on a bed of snow.

As I walked around, I could see that these last leaves of the hazels were being lost, and my attention was taken by one particularly evocative example, where a bright yellow leaf had landed on a solid patch of snow, creating a beautiful contrast of colours. I suspect that this leaf had probably been blown down by one of the squalls a few minutes before, as it still looked very fresh indeed. There hadn’t been time yet for the loss of vitality to begin, which occurs once a leaf loses contact with the flow of sap in the tree.

With the daylight beginning to fade, twilight accelerated with the onset of another snow squall, and this was my last photograph of the day.

With the daylight beginning to fade, twilight was accelerated by the onset of another snow squall, and this was my last photograph of the day.

Although it was only just after 3 pm, the available light was rapidly dwindling, and the opportunities for photography came to an end. It’s one of the realities of life in the Highlands that the days are very short in the period close to the winter solstice – we get a little over six hours of daylight around the shortest day of the year on 21st December. On this occasion, the approach of another squall truncated the daylight still further, so I finished up for the day, and I’ll finish this blog now with a compilation of video clips from the day, which show the intensity of the intermittent snow showers that came with each squall.

6 Responses to Winter meets autumn in Glen Affric

  1. Eoghan says:

    Lovely video, photos, and words, many thanks for sharing this with us. Sometimes when I’m in such a place (as I’m lucky enough to be very often) I find my reaction to the many diverse layers of beauty, meaning, and peace to actually border on painful, they are so intense.

    I often wondered about species like oak retaining leaves through the winter on new growth, but I never knew there was a name for it, or gave any thought to the reasons behind it: always learning!

    • Hi Eoghan,

      Many thanks for your comment and response to this blog. Interestingly enough, I learned a lot too while I was writing it, as I had to do some research for the text, and came across the word marcescence for the first time – I’ve known of the phenomenon for quite a while, but hadn’t come across the technical term for it before.

      With best wishes,

      Alan

  2. Ashley says:

    Alan, I think this is one of the most exciting posts I’ve read recently! And the video is a brilliantly visual & exciting experience too. I want to get my paint-box out!

  3. thanks for another great blog post, Alan; I especially love this one because it is so evocative of the fact that this is in Scotland: northern British weather interacting with northern British forest, what a joy

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