As I write this we’ve just passed the equinox, and spring is well under way in the Highlands, with clear sunny days, lots of bird songs and the first flowers already in blossom. In some ways it almost seems like we didn’t have a winter this year, as the weather was generally relatively mild and the cold snowy days often associated with the season have been conspicuous mostly by their absence. There were occasional falls of snow, but usually the temperature warmed up again quite quickly, so the white covering on the ground and the trees never lasted for more than a day or two.
In fact, the only significant snowfall this year in the Caledonian Forest areas where we work occurred in the middle of January. As it turned out I had already planned to spend a day for photography then in Glen Affric, so my timing was perfect for making the most of the snowiest event of the winter. I arrived in the glen in the morning to find it a perfect white wonderland, with fresh snow coating every branch of the trees, and not a breath of wind to disturb the pristine beauty of the landscape.
It was one of those days when the exquisite presence of Nature takes my breath away, filling me with a sense of wonder at the remarkable transformation that can be brought about overnight by such a simple thing as the precipitation of frozen water out of the air. The wind-still conditions had allowed the myriad falling flakes to stick to every available surface, highlighting each twig and branch with white. If Nature is the ultimate artist, then surely winter snowfalls like this are some of her finest creations, with the crystalline flakes being the media that are daubed and draped on a landscape-scale canvas that covers glens and hills alike.
I stopped on the road between Badger Falls and Dog Falls, where the sides of the glen are steep and narrow, falling away steeply to the Affric River below. This is the richest area in Affric for its tree species, and in addition to the usual Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris), birches (Betula pendula and Betula pubescens) and rowan trees (Sorbus aucuparia), there are abundant hazel trees (Corylus avellana) and rarer species such as aspen (Populus tremula), wych elm (Ulmus glabra) and hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna).
This is the best area in the whole glen for hazel in particular, and in recent years large numbers of young trees have become established there. This is due in part to the success of Forest Enterprise Scotland in reducing the number of red deer (Cervus elaphus) in the area, so that there is no longer such pressure of overgrazing, which previously prevented the growth of any new trees. It’s also an indication that ecological succession is occurring again, with trees such as hazel, oak (Quercus petraea) and even ash (Fraxinus excelsior) beginning to spread, replacing the pioneer birches there, which are coming to the end of their lives.
With their multiple trunks and spreading branches, the hazels had more snow on them than the other trees, so I spent some time looking closely at them. Because of the narrowness of the Affric River gorge in this section of the glen, there is constant spray from the cascading river that creates a temperate rainforest micro-climate there. This supports a profusion of epiphytic mosses and lichens on the trees, particularly on the hazels, whose bark is less acidic than the birches and Scots pines.
Some of these lichens were still visible, despite the snow, particularly the large bright green lichens that are called tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria). This species is one of largest of all the lichens that occur in the UK, with its lobes reaching up to 18 cm. across. Whilst most lichens consist of a symbiotic partnership between two organisms – a fungus and an alga – tree lungwort contains a third partner as well, a cyanobacterium (Nostoc sp.). This absorbs nitrogen from the air, fixing it in the thallus or main body of the lichen. When the tree lungwort dies or falls to the ground, the nitrogen passes into the soil, becoming available as a nutrient for other plants, so this lichen actively enriches the fertility of the forests where it grows.
The tree lungwort provided a rare glimpse of green in the otherwise white landscape, but there were other lichens visible on the trees as well. Abundant old man’s beard lichen (Usnea sp.) was seemingly dripping from both the hazels and birch trees, sustained there by the constant moisture in the atmosphere, rising up from the cascading water in the river below. As its growth habit involves hanging down from the branches, this lichen seemed to mirror the snow that was piled up above, forming the visual equivalent of a three-layered cake, with the branches in the middle.
While I watched, the sun came out for a few minutes, and where it illuminated the trees, the snow began to melt immediately, forming large drops of water that fell from the branches and twigs. Each falling drop caused the twig or branch it had been on to adjust its position to account for the reduced load of snow it was holding, and this created a veritable dance of undulating movement in mid air. With the sun catching the snow and giving rise to spontaneous sparkles of light, it was a magical and momentary play of the elements together.
Not far away, I came across some more hazel trees right beside the road, and I was astonished to see that one of them had male catkins almost fully opened on it, despite being heavily-loaded with snow.
This was quite exceptional and unprecedented in my experience, as it was only the 14th of January, and normally it’s early March when the catkins appear on hazels in Glen Affric. I’ve never seen catkins out in the glen so early in the year before, and it seemed to me to be a reflection of the mild winter that we’ve had overall. Despite the snow on this particular day, these catkins were two months ahead of their normal timing. Perhaps this is one of Nature’s responses to the effects of human-induced climate change?
After spending a few minutes appreciating the catkins I moved further along the road and stopped at the Dog Falls car park. The glen opens out slightly wider at that point and the composition of the forest changes as well, with Scots pines predominating, especially on the south side of the river. One particular stand of old trees with straight trunks illustrated graphically which direction the snow had come from – the western sides were all white, whereas the east-facing sides of the trunks had no snow on them at all.
In contrast to the straight-trunked trees, one pine had upper branches that seemed to undulate out from the trunk in an elegant, fluid movement that was highlighted by the snow lying on them. It reminded me of various illustrations of the multi-armed Asian goddesses depicted in the midst of some cosmic dance…
By now it was lunch time, and as there are some picnic benches at the Dog Falls car park, I cleared the snow away from one of them and sat down to eat. I did so quite deliberately, knowing that there are robins (Erithacus rubecula) in the vicinity that often come down to beg food from people there, and sure enough, almost at once, one appeared. Its feathers were all puffed up because of the snow, and its red breast seemed especially vivid and bright as it perched near me.
The robin perched for a minute or two on one tree and then moved to another, circling around where I was, looking for an opportunity to get some food. It was obviously well-used to doing this, as it had a series of spots on the branches of the trees that it kept going back to, all with a clear view of the picnic bench I was sitting at. I was the only person there this day, so I’m guessing the robin was a little disappointed, as it only gleaned a few bread crumbs that dropped from my sandwich – it will get more hand-outs of food when the visitor numbers to the glen increase in the spring.
Not far from the picnic bench there was an interestingly-shaped rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia) right beside the river. It had multiple branches emerging from its trunk part way up, probably as a result of its leader shoot having been eaten by a deer. This would have stimulated several side branches to grow upwards instead, with one of them subsequently taking over as the leader shoot.
The branches of the rowan had several large patches of moss on them, and their green colour, together with the bright orange of some lichens on the rowan’s bark, stood out from the otherwise very white landscape. When the robin landed on one of the rowan’s branches, its red breast added to the palette of colourful hues set against the snowy backdrop.
Leaving the rowan and the robin behind, I began walking downstream, along the footpath that borders the river. There had been hardly a breath of wind all day, and the sun had not been out much either, so the snow was still resting on the branches of the trees, and hadn’t melted from any of the rocks in the river. Everywhere was still pristine and white, and it was a rare opportunity to appreciate the presence of the snow like this. Because Glen Affric is in a windy location, it’s rare for the snow to remain on the trees for long – usually it gets blown off quite quickly.
Looking at the snow on the rocks, I thought that it would probably all be gone the next day – it’s an ephemeral phenomenon for sure. However, I recognised that the river is also always in transition, because it is different water that is in any one part of it, from moment to moment. Thus, while the river itself is always there, the actual water it is composed of is never the same – it’s constantly fluid and in motion, and not just in the literal sense of the words.
When I reached Dog falls itself, I spent a few minutes there, and then for the final part of the day I continued further up the glen, on the north side of Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin. Just past the dam, there’s a small burn called the Allt Coire Beithe that flows down from the north and into the loch. Where it does so, there is a large bluff or steep rock face to the west, meaning that the burn itself is both sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds and doesn’t get any sun at all in winter.
This area featured in a blog I wrote earlier this year, when there was no snow, and it looked very different. Now, it was a veritable winter wonderland, because the sun and wind hadn’t touched it at all, and as I had guessed, there was more snow on the trees and the ground than elsewhere in the glen. I’ve observed this over a period of years, as I’ve got to know Glen Affric better and better – this is the place that holds snow or frost longer than anywhere else.
It takes time to build up a relationship like this with a place, and I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to continuously deepen my knowledge of, and familiarity with, what is one of the most special and beautiful glens in the country.
By this time the light was really beginning to fade, and the opportunities for photography were coming to an end. It was only just after 3 pm, but that’s typical of the short days we have in the Highlands at this time of year, in the middle of January. As a result there never seems to be enough time for me to take photographs on days like this – there were so many other parts of the glen that I didn’t get a chance to explore during this day. It had also been another day when I hadn’t strayed far from the road, but that was mainly a reflection of how much of interest there was to see beside it – I didn’t need to walk a long way to find fascinating and aesthetically pleasing subjects to look at and photograph. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was also the only significant snowfall we had all winter, so I’m glad now that I made as much of it as I did – it had been a truly magical winter’s day in the forest.
Throughout the day I’d been interspersing my still photography with shooting some video footage, so here’s a brief compilation of that to finish this blog with: