Aspen on the Edge

You might recall my previous post regarding the presence of Juniper on Glengorm. Following the visit by Matt Parratt last week, we are delighted to report that bushes [both male and female] were found, and that sufficient numbers of juniper cones were collected to make his trip worthwhile.

Mr Parratt enjoyed superlative weather, which was fortunate because his designated collection area was none other than the summit and slopes of ‘S Airde Beinn!

Somewhat surprisingly, Mr Parratt also discovered a small group of Eurasian Aspen trees on the craggy western flank of this volcanic feature.

Aspen is a rather beautiful member of the poplar family. It often grows in association with birch species, and is thought to have been one of the first trees to colonise our landscape at the end of the last ice age.

This tree is great at spreading, and though it doesn’t flower and set seed very often, it does have an unusual ace up its silvicultural sleeve.

When you discover a dense stand of aspens, it is quite likely that all of these trunks are part of just one plant. The tree has effectively cloned itself  by allowing some of its root suckers to develop into fully fledged replicas. This can lead to something like immortality for the founder individual.

Though aspens are pretty good at sowing their wild oats, the species has the unfortunate handicap of being very tasty. Seedlings and new ramets [clones] are eagerly devoured by almost anything of a vegetarian persuasion.

Once common throughout the UK, our aspen population is now extremely fragmented; being restricted to sites where the trees have avoided the attention of grazers and people.

Linking up isolated populations is key to restoring the full compliment of aspen to our countryside. Though you could probably find aspen in almost any 10Km square of mainland Scotland, tree numbers will be small and groves are likely to be quite isolated from each other.

The paucity of aspen is especially sad because of its importance for our biodiversity. Five UK-BAP species are known to depend on this tree alone. Those five are the aspen bracket fungus, aspen bristle-moss, aspen hoverfly and dark-bordered beauty moth.

Interestingly, aspen is also the preferred food plant for Eurasian Beavers. The population of beavers on Loch ‘S Airde Beinn is currently zero… but never say never!

Though Glengorm has already identified ‘S Airde Beinn as a priority area for conservation [it is a Geological SSSI too] we hope that the presence of juniper and aspen will strengthen our case to fully protect and conserve this site.

Stephanie Cope

Glengorm Wildlife Steward

The view from the Cairn on ‘S Airde Beinn, home to Eurasian Aspen and Common Juniper'S Airde Beinn

Thumb Image: Alan Watson Featherstone –




Hitting the Bottle

There have been times this summer when, braced against horizontal rain and bellowing into the faces of distressed transatlantic tourists, I have had cause to re-evaluate my career choice. Sometimes being a wildlife guide just isn’t that easy.

Worse still, there are occasions when the wildlife is there with bells on… but your clients, dressed in pristine tennis shoes and casting wistful glances back towards the Castle and its Whisky Library, seem immune to its manifold charms.

It was at the end of just such a session when, deflated and frustrated, I returned alone to the rocks to search for Basking sharks. I only get to see these animals maybe once or twice a year; despite my every attempt to persuade the guests in question that they were well worth taking a closer look at, they had absolutely no desire to detour from our main route to see them.

I continued the walk in a state of puzzlement – evidently, I was expected to produce something even more spectacular.

Two cavorting Otters, a leaping pod of Bottlenose Dolphins and a White-tailed Eagle fly-past all failed to arouse so much as a flicker of interest. I was horrified.

When I arrived at the shore some time later, the sharks had long since disappeared. I hunkered down on a cushion of grass, plunking small shells into the water and brooding darkly on my misfortune.

It seemed unjust that these natural history ingrates had been blessed with a silver platter of island wildlife, when other [far more deserving] guests were delighted by the wooden spoon of foul weather and clouds of bloodsucking midges. Mother Nature can be capricious.

I waited hours. My backside transcended “numb” and reached some higher level of discomfort. The Sound was a shark-free zone.

Reluctantly, I slung my binoculars over my shoulder and turned towards home. I had already moved some distance before I turned to see a bright star flash in the water. Several others winked after it in rapid succession.  A couple of Shags scuttered over the surface, apparently moving out of the way. The dolphins were back.

Galvanised into action, I all but threw myself over the cliff and down onto the salt splashed rocks. My binoculars and camera swung wildly as I lurched from foothold to foothold. Breathless and more than a little sweaty, I watched.

There has been a lot of research into dolphin cognition. And really, I shudder to contemplate what they must have thought – casually swimming past this quiet stretch of the Mull coast, only to discover a crazed human being, literally bouncing with enthusiasm and grinning like an unhinged lottery-winner. No wonder they came so close; it must have been quite a sight. Two dusky silver calves popped up alongside the adults, and for a moment, I thought I might actually explode with happiness.

It’s days like that when I fall in love with this island all over again.

Stephanie Cope

Glengorm Wildlife Steward

Family Photo: the two adult females and the two calves! 


Deer Diary

The autumn rut is my favourite seasonal event on Glengorm.

I can categorically tell you that nothing else – and I mean nothing – will get me springing out of bed at 5:30am.

Last year was the first occasion that I lead groups out to watch the stags; in all honestly, I was quite unlucky. The deer were slow to get going, and for almost a week of “prime rutting time” I despaired of finding any!

The 2013 rut was preceded by an exceptionally cold winter and a slow growing season for our vegetation. Though photoperiod [how many hours of daylight there are] is the main driver for rutting behaviour, it seems reasonable to suppose that a difficult cycle might put the deer behind schedule.

This time, however, they are right on cue. Alex and I were up bright and early to locate the stags.

Walking around in the pitch-black on Glengorm is a strangely soothing experience. No birds sing, no wind stirs the larch trees and only the distant boom of breaking waves spoiles the silence. That, and the baleful roaring of our stags.

Once upon a time Red deer were forest dwellers. Since the vast majority of Britain’s ancient tree cover has been removed, we are now more used to seeing them in the open.

The vocalizations that Red deer produce during the breeding season are designed to penetrate thick cover. “Roaring” carries well because the long soundwaves are able to diffract around obstacles such as trees. This differs from similar species such as Elk, which emit a higher frequency “bugling” call and prefer forest edge habitat.

Male red deer call throughout the night during the rut, and often during the day too. All of their energies are devoted to breeding behaviour; individuals can lose up to 20% of their body weight. Some will die from exhaustion, or be unable to recover condition before the cold weather of winter breaks. 

If your day needs a comedy injection, google bugling Elks and marvel at how girly they sound!

Our Red deer stags are anything but girly. If you didn’t know what was out there, you could be forgiven for thinking that our forest was full of velociraptors. The quality of the call varies based on what message the stag is trying to deliver. Mostly, it is like a long, loud snoring burp. I have been accused by my beloved of producing similar noises from time to time.

Stagsroar for several reasons: to indicate their size and vigour [to both other males and hinds], to challenge a competitor or to reinforce a victory.

As we entered Sorne forest, it was clear that there were stags both in and out of the tree cover. We continued through the gloom and emerged by Baliacrach. Dim shadows could be seen moving along the ridges against the lightening sky, and at least six animals were roaring across the glen. The wind seemed changeable; this made the task of choosing a route difficult.

Red deer rely heavily on scent and hearing to monitor their surroundings. Though they are flighty at all other times of year, massive increases in testosterone levels [1000 x the resting level – yikes] can make the stags belligerent and unpredictable. From late June, their internal reproductive organs undergo histological changes in preparation for breeding. By mid September, their “accessory” reproductive organs [use your imagination] have increased considerably in size, as has the girth of the animals neck. Oh, and did I mention the antlers? Made of bone thicker than my wrist with up to eight forward facing spikes on each side?

Basically, it is in the interests of your longevity not to meet 190Kg of antler-swinging sexual frustration head on.

With that in mind we headed off through the darkness towards the deer. We had holding grounds from the previous year in our sights, so cut through the ruined houses to a five bar gate. We moved quietly, trying not to rustle clothing or vegetation.

At my immediate left, there was a sharp bark. We froze. It was still too dark to see the animal, but we could both hear hoofbeats traveling away from us. Ahead, around five stags were calling from the ridge. We passed through the gate and agreed that it must have been a lone hind on her way to the roaring males. We were aiming for a small patch of trees that would provide cover when dawn came. Right behind us, there was a gut churning bellow.

One of Glengorm’s young stags

Red Deer Stag [close]

Alex and I slid on our bellies into one of the black houses and peered back towards the gate. Standing at it was a sizable stag. It was far too dark to see more than his silhouette, but he was rubbing his nose along the bars where we had climbed over. He was less than 20m away, but thankfully on the other side of the fence. The fence was no real barrier to him of course; but I had the feeling that without it, he might have wandered closer.

Each antler bore at least six tines [points] and the stems were well shaped and solid. He kept sniffing the places where our scent was left, becoming increasingly agitated. Alex and I mouthed expletives to one another and flattened down behind the stones.  The stag stood squarely, letting out a series of terrifying roars. From belly height, he looked exceedingly tall. These roars had a more guttural quality than those of the surrounding stags, and I am quite sure they were being delivered for our benefit.

At such proximity, the sound seemed to vibrate inside our chests. We could smell him. The weird bluish light of dawn was gathering, and against it, a pocket of hinds could be seen watching from the next rise. It started to rain. Eventually our male joined his harem; drifting off towards Balimeanach.

Red Deer Hinds

These two hinds [and calf] are part of a 22-strong harem belonging to “Mr Big” – the largest individual currently near An Sean Dun. 

Alex and I let out a joint sigh of relief. When I walked back past the gate later on, I could see huge hoof slots in the soft ground. If it hadn’t been so dark, I’m quite sure he would have seen us crouched behind the wall.

I continued alone towards An Sean Dun, where the main activity had been last year. Using vegetation as cover I was able to pick out at least four stags – some with hinds – roaring above Mingary.  More were calling from the Quinish forest, though I was not high enough to see them in the clearings.

As first-light brightened into morning, most of the master stags left for cover. Younger animals, hoping perhaps to steal a chance mating, loitered around the holding grounds. The rain was persistent, and they hunkered down in the bracken until just the tips of their antlers were visible. Every now and then they would rise to spray urine or to call a couple of times. I stayed with them for an hour, before distant gunshots sent them packing.

All in all, it was worth getting up for.

Stephanie Cope

Glengorm Wildlife Steward