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


A torrent in the forest, soon to be diverted?

The Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh in full spate, cascading past epiphyte-covered alder trees (Alnus glutinosa) and hard ferns (Blechnum spicant) in Glen Affric.

The Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh in full spate, cascading past epiphyte-covered alder trees (Alnus glutinosa) and hard ferns (Blechnum spicant) in Glen Affric.

This winter continues to be one of constant change, with wildly fluctuating weather and frequent storms hitting the north of Scotland. After a cold spell of two or three days in the second half of January, with snow and freezing, sub-zero conditions, a warm front moved in quickly from the west, and within less than 24 hours the temperature rose to 14°C. As a result, the snow held in the mountains melted very rapidly, swelling the rivers and burns, making for spectacular torrents where there are normally more sedate and gentle flows of water.

Taken with a fast shutter speed, this photograph shows the turbulent, boiling movement of the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiahd as it thunders past the moss- and lichen-covered trucks of an alder tree (Alnus glutinosa).

Taken with a fast shutter speed, this photograph shows the turbulent, boiling movement of the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh as it thunders past the moss- and lichen-covered trunks of an alder tree (Alnus glutinosa).

These were the dramatic conditions I encountered on a Sunday trip out to Glen Affric recently, when I planned to walk up one of the largest watercourses in the glen, the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh. Translated from the Gaelic, this means ‘water or river of the valley of the deer’, and it flows down from the east side of Carn Eige, the highest peak north of the Great Glen in Scotland, into Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin. It forms the catchment for water flowing down from several other Munros (peaks over 3,000 feet or 910 metres) as well, including Tom a’Choinich and Toll Creagach.

The same scene taken with a very slow shutter speed, giving a gentle blurred effect from the rapid movement of the water.

The same scene taken with a very slow shutter speed, giving a gentle blurred effect from the rapid movement of the water.

This area had obviously been holding a substantial amount of snow, and now,  with its rapid melting, the burn was a raging torrent in full spate on the day I was there. I’d planned to walk up this burn because it is one of two in Glen Affric that are scheduled to have micro-hydro schemes installed on them, which I mentioned in a previous blog about the watercourse. Originally, there were 4 separate burns in the glen being considered for these schemes, but two of them were dropped after more detailed studies were done on their rates of  water flow etc.

This spectacular waterfall on the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh is un-named, and was in full spate when I visited it.

This spectacular waterfall on the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh is un-named, and was in full spate on the day when I visited it.

However, the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh, the largest of all the tributaries that flow into the Affric River basin, is obviously a prime candidate for such an electricity generating project, and as I walked up from the car park this day I could see many blue surveyors’ ribbons, indicating the route where the underground pipe for the water would be run. This is planned to be underneath the main access track in the area, which enables hillwalkers to reach the Munros such as Carn Eige, so it is a very popular route.

Closer view of the waterfall on the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh in Glen Affric.

Closer view of the waterfall on the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh.

As I wrote in 2012, I find it hard to comprehend that a small-scale hydro scheme is even contemplated for this watercourse. It’s in the heart of the Glen Affric National Nature Reserve (NNR), which is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the EU Natura 2000 scheme and a National Scenic Area (NSA). It’s one of the most designated areas of land in Scotland! Glen Affric is often cited as being the ‘crown jewels’ of the National Nature Reserve system, and is supposed to be managed for the ‘primacy of nature’. If it can’t be protected from industrial energy extraction, what hope is there for any area in Scotland? Under the scheme that is proposed, a concrete weir would be installed in the burn, well upstream from the waterfall shown here, and the water extracted to be piped downhill to a turbine house that will be located near the road and the discharge point of the burn into Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin.

These young birch and Scots pine trees were dwarfed by the waterfall behind them.

These young birch and Scots pine trees were dwarfed by the waterfall behind them.

This is being done to meet the Scottish Government’s ambitious commitment to renewable energy. Forestry Commission Scotland, which manages the Glen Affric NNR, has been pressed to meet as much of the commitment as it can.

These young trees were getting constantly buffeted by the updraft created by the action of the falling mass of water in the falls.

These trees were getting constantly buffeted by the updraft created by the action of the falling mass of water.

 

 

 

 

 

Another of the waterfall, taken through the stand of old Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) that fringe the watercourse.

Another view of the waterfall, taken through the stand of old Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) that fringe the watercourse.

 

Here, the stillness of the bracken frond (Pteridium aquilinum) contrasts with the rapid movement of the tumbling water in the falls.

Here, the stillness of the bracken frond (Pteridium aquilinum) contrasts with the rapid movement of the tumbling water in the falls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While I support that target for renewable energy, it shouldn’t be achieved by industrial developments in National Nature Reserves that protect (supposedly!) some of the best remaining semi-natural landscapes in the Highlands.

A wider angle view, showing the waterfall and the cascading flow of the water downstream from it.

A wider angle view, showing the waterfall and the cascading flow of the water downstream from it.

This waterfall is only about 200 metres from the main footpath that leads up to Carn Eige, which is traversed by thousands of hillwalkers every year. However, there is no path that leads to it, and it isn’t visible, or even audible, from the footpath, so I suspect that very few people visit it, or even know of its existence. In a very real sense, this defines the potential tragedy that may unfold in the glen, as the water flow in this spectacular falls will inevitably be diminished by the hydro scheme, with almost no one knowing about it!

Lichens on the trunk of the fallen (but still living Scots pine) shown above. These are heather rags lichen (Hypogymnia physodes), 'frilly lettuce' or ragged lichen (Platismatia glauca) and blood lichen (probably Mycoblastus sanguinarius).

Lichens on the trunk of the fallen (but still living) Scots pine shown above. These are heather rags lichen (Hypogymnia physodes), ‘frilly lettuce’ or ragged lichen (Platismatia glauca) and blood lichen (probably Mycoblastus sanguinarius).

Downstream from the waterfall, the burn flows in this gorge that is fringed by Scots pines.

Downstream from the waterfall, the burn flows through this gorge that is fringed by Scots pines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This inconspicuousness of the waterfall is reinforced by the fact that it doesn’t have a name on any of the Ordnance Survey maps for the area. In the past, when people still lived in Glen Affric, I’m sure they would have had a name for it, but that knowledge was probably lost with the Highland Clearances of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the tenant crofters were forcibly removed from areas such as this. This lack of a name is symbolic of our loss of contact with the land, and it is that in turn which enables so-called ‘developments’ such as this proposed hydro scheme to continue to impact the few surviving relatively untouched landscapes in the Highlands today.

This smaller waterfall is situated a few hundred metres upstream, inside the fenced exclosure known as Meallan that we funded in 1991.

This smaller waterfall is situated a few hundred metres upstream, inside the fenced exclosure known as Meallan that we funded in 1991.

I spent quite a while at the site of this waterfall, appreciating the spectacle and power of the water as it plunged downwards into the gorge. It created a whole micro-climate of its own, as the spray from the falling water was swirling constantly in the air, and getting on to my camera lens. As a result I had to take multiple versions of many of these photographs, because the long exposures required to get the blurred effect of the water meant that raindrops were regularly landing on the lens during each exposure. To some extent therefore it was a matter of luck, until I managed to get a version of each photograph with no drops of water on the lens. When I eventually moved on from there, I headed upstream for several hundred metres to another, smaller waterfall that is located inside the 55 hectare Meallan exclosure that we funded in 1991. This was the second project we implemented with Forestry Commission Scotland in Glen Affric, and our volunteers planted over 28,000 Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) there from 1992 to 1994.

Alder tree (Alnus glutinosa) covered in lichens, beside the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh burn.

Alder tree (Alnus glutinosa) covered in lichens, beside the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh burn.

This smaller waterfall was a favourite place for our volunteer groups during the tree planting weeks in the early 1990s. We often had lunch in this area, and even, on warmer days, went swimming just below the falls, receiving an excellent natural massage on our shoulders from the falling water! On this day, however, the waterfall was completely unrecognisable, as it was swollen to many times its usual size and it was inconceivable to consider getting in the water anywhere there at all.

Another view of the old alder tree beside the rushing torrent of the burn.

Another view of the alder tree beside the rushing torrent of the burn.

Closer view of the old alder beside the burn. The smaller stem on the left has the bright green stems of a blaeberry plant (Vaccinium myrtillus) and the fronds of a common polypody fern (Polypodium vulgare) on it, in addition to the mosses and lichens covering almost of its bark.

Closer view of the old alder beside the burn. The smaller stem on the left has the bright green stems of a blaeberry plant (Vaccinium myrtillus) and the fronds of a common polypody fern (Polypodium vulgare) growing on it, in addition to the mosses and lichens that are covering almost all of its bark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another different view of the old alder tree. The lichens on the main trunk with the orange 'branches' are coral lichen (Sphaerophorus globosus).

Another different view of the old alder tree. The lichens on the main trunk with the orange ‘branches’ are coral lichen (Sphaerophorus globosus).

Like the waterfall further downstream, this one is at the top of a small gorge, which is relatively inaccessible for a hundred metres or so below the falls. I had no need of trying to get into the gorge though, as there was so much of interest all around at this one spot. An old alder tree (Alnus glutinosa) with several main stems had died while it was still standing, and it was completely covered by moss, lichen, and some plants such as blaeberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) and common polypody fern (Polypodium vulgare).

The bright green stems on the trunk in the centre of this image is the blaeberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), and there's also more coral lichen (Sphaerophorus globosus) around it.

The bright green stems on the alder trunk in the centre of this image are the blaeberry plant (Vaccinium myrtillus), and there’s also more coral lichen (Sphaerophorus globosus) around it.

These were all growing as epiphytes on the alder trunk, meaning that they are using it for support, but do not take any nutrients from the tree. Instead, they derive their nourishment from organic matter and dust that falls on to the trunk and gets trapped there. These epiphytic plants are also only able to thrive in this location because the cascading water in the burn creates a constant supply of moisture in the air, some of which is absorbed by the moss, lichen and other plants.

This cluster of hard ferns (Blechnum spicant) near the older alder added some vivid green colour to this part of the gorge.

This cluster of hard ferns (Blechnum spicant) near the alder tree added some vivid green colour to this part of the gorge.

More detailed view of the moss and lichen communities on a couple of the dead trunks of the alder tree.

More detailed view of the moss and lichen communities on a couple of the dead trunks of the alder tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The trunks of the dead alder were completely covered in these epiphytic organisms, graphically illustrating how a tree fulfils an important role within the ecosystem even after it has died.

Wider angle view of the hard ferns (Blechnum spicant) and the alder tree beside the burn.

Wider angle view of the hard ferns (Blechnum spicant) and the alder tree beside the burn.

On a nearby downy birch tree (Betula pubescens) I found some birch jelly fungi (Exidia repanda). These gelatinous fungi can be found year-round, but are usually only seen in the winter – they are more visible when the trees are leafless, and are fully hydrated on wet days like this one. On dry days, which are more common in the warmer time of the year, they shrivel up to virtually nothing so are very inconspicuous then.

Birch jelly fungus (Exidia repanda) on a birch twig beside the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh burn.

Birch jelly fungus (Exidia repanda) on a birch twig beside the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh burn.

 

 

 

 

A closely related species, the willow jelly fungus (Exidia recisa), occurs on willow trees, and I’ve found it before on a willow further downstream on this watercourse – there are some photos of it on a previous blog. Further information about both these jelly fungi species can be found here.

Closer view of the rocks at the edge of the burn.

Closer view of some of the rocks at the edge of the burn. The lichens are particularly vivid and conspicuous because of the spray from the water.

While I was looking at the epiphytes on the alder trunks, my attention was drawn to a group of rocks at the edge of the burn. These had patches of crustose lichens on them, and they seemed almost to be glowing and radiant with life in the wet conditions.

Lichen-covered rocks beside one of the cascades on the burn.

Lichen-covered rocks beside cascades on the burn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I took this photograph, looking upstream from the upper waterfall, as the light was fading - it was my last image of the day.

I took this photograph, looking upstream from the upper waterfall, as the light was fading – it was my last image of the day.

I had hoped to continue further up the watercourse, but it had turned out to be another day when I spent all my time in a relatively small area, and with the light beginning to fade it was time to head for home. I did so with some sadness, knowing that the next time I visit this burn, the water flowing in it may be significantly reduced by the micro-hydro scheme planned for it.  In a meeting a few days later I discovered that the scheme has still not been finally signed off, so there may still be some hope for the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh remaining free of industrial energy extraction …

I’ve written a few other blogs about different sections of this watercourse in the past four years or so, dating from February 2012, later that same month, September 2012 and April 2013.

To finish with, here’s a compilation of video footage from the day, showing the power and thunder of the burn in full spate. If the micro-hydro scheme does go ahead, such dramatic water flows may become a thing of the past.

 

 

15 Responses to A torrent in the forest, soon to be diverted?

  1. James Close says:

    An e petition would seem to be the way to raise the violation of the Nature reserve?

  2. Ashley says:

    Alan, another wonderful post!
    I agree with your comments about renewable energy; it is a huge dilemma though.
    I hadn’t intended to make a negative comment here but just like the old names that have disappeared, so too the landscape! Maybe your video will be all that is left. The Earth just cannot support the growing populations. That I suppose is why we must be extra critical when it comes to protecting what remains of the natural world.
    We don’t treat the International Space Station the way we treat the Earth! We need to think of the Earth in a similar way; at this time it is our only home!

  3. Gemma says:

    I would definitely sign a petition. Like you say, there’s no way such extraction should be possible in a multiple designated area, it makes a mockery of what those designations stand for. Great and informative blog again Alan, thank you. Does anyone know how we start one?

  4. Alistair Brodie says:

    Sadly, it seems as if the Scottish Government is no different to the Westminster Government? Mr Cameron and Co talk about the UK’s new Marine Protection Zones (now 50 in all?) .. but then fail to put in place any “management” measures! We have sites of “this and that” all over the country, but when it comes to it; commercial/economic issues, housing, jobs etc all seem to take precedence over environmental concerns.
    Let us know if we get a petition going – equally happy to contribute.

  5. Lav says:

    Ask for the Bryophyte survey that should have been carried out for this burn. This should highlight how sensitive this area is. There maybe something in there to help with your petition in regard to high diversity and sensitivity to reducing water levels for certain Bryophytes.

  6. This sounds appallingly like Switzerland ever since the government there decided to abandon nuclear power. Energy producers pounce on every possible and impossible watercourse to plonk a hydro plant on it. The government is under enormous pressure to allow this flood of applications despite current legislation put in place to safeguard the natural landscape. The overriding reason given by the applicants is the usual refrain “but we need all the energy we can lay our hands on or darkness will reign”. Does any government, Swiss or British, make any real effort to reduce energy consumption? They want steadfast growth above all else. It is a sad state of affairs.

  7. JIM KIERAN says:

    Thanks Alan for an extremely informative commentary and a mesmerising video. It’s lovely to be able to immerse myself in Glen Affric again, periodically. Such a beautiful place. So calming!
    Regarding the proposed hydroelectric scheme and renewable energy generally, I agree that there must be less controversial sites. I’m not an expert but I can’t imagine this would be a very big scheme anyway, and they will surely have substantial infrastructure costs to link it to the National Grid.
    The bottom line is that we should be concentrating on using less power rather than simply trying to swop fossil fuel sources for renewables with a view to producing the same amount of, or more power.
    Thanks once again for the time you spent bringing this to us.

  8. Douglas Kerr says:

    I’m actually a fan of the micro hydro schemes. Their impact is much less than other renewables and they generate continuously. As it is in a multiple designated area the mitigation would have to be very stringent, perhaps in the form of locating the intake bellow the falls and making the dam virtually invisible through landscaping. This may reduce the potential power output & increase the cost to the point where the scheme isn’t viable. My biggest fear would be needing pylons for energy transmission. I would rule it out but try to ensure that any environmental impact is minimal.

  9. Douglas Kerr says:

    *wouldn’t

  10. David says:

    I think a petition would be a great idea.

  11. Eileen Cameron says:

    Oh dear, yet another example 0f designated terms proving meaningless. National Nature Reserve (NNR), Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) – You would think that these titles should mean something, but all too often they don’t. Perhaps the best thing would be for people to write to the Scottish Minister for the Environment. They usually pay more attention when large numbers of people write independently, as opposed to adding their name to a format prepared by an organization – although that can work too. It is a tricky business because we want to get away from fossil fuel based energy, but NNR, SSSI and SAC should mean more than ‘ignore when it suits’.

    • John Lowry says:

      Designations are only worthwhile if there is the will to enforce the designation — I am reminded of a historic building in my hometown that was designated a “heritage” structure, interestingly a designation that was only rescinded six months after the building was torn down!!

  12. Peter Taylor says:

    I find it so sad that the technocratic mind cannot see some places need to be sacrosanct. These micro-schemes generate micro amounts of electricity – and it would hardly impact Scotland’s overall goal to leave the wildest place to the wild.

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