It’s with a degree of relief that we’re able to report on some botanical news this week. Up until now, plant growth has been suppressed by the persistently and remarkably low temperatures that have characterised spring 2021. But on Thursday, the temperature reached the dizzying heights of 18oC, and along with recent rainfall, this has finally stirred things into life.
The dune heath is beginning to twinkle with tiny wildflowers, the surest sign of the onset of summer at Forvie. The first few Wild Pansies appeared several weeks ago, but in certain places on the dry heath they are now really abundant. Likewise Bird’s-foot Trefoil, whose yellow and orange blooms contrast with the purple-blues and whites of the pansies. Taking in its intoxicating sweet scent on a still, warm day in the dunes is one of life’s pleasures.
The cliffs between Rockend and Collieston support their own distinctive assemblage of wild plants, and for the next few weeks they will be awash with colour. Most obvious among the cliff-dwelling wildflowers are the powder-pink tufts of Thrift. Low-growing, drought-resistant and salt-hardy, this must be one of the toughest of all flowering plants, and can be found eking out a living in the most inhospitable of places.
Another plant specially adapted to the cliff environment is Sea Campion. Like the Thrift, it also forms dense, low-growing cushions of leaves, each topped with its distinctive white flowers. Traditionally it was considered unlucky to bring Sea Campion flowers into the household, most likely due to the dangers associated with climbing the precipitous cliffs to pick the flowers. Right enough, best to stick to the footpath and appreciate the flowers in-situ!
Silverweed is another hardy species which can be found growing among the shingle at the top of the inter-tidal zone, such as on the beach at Hackley Bay. But it’s equally at home in the sheltered dune-slacks, even those that are part-flooded in winter, and can also be seen along the footpath edges. Its name comes from the silvery undersides to the leaves. Common, widespread and attractive, it’s another easy-to-recognise plant for the botanical beginner.
The upturn in temperatures and plant activity has meant a corresponding increase in insect activity. This week produced sightings of a couple of mystery caterpillars, the first of which turned up in the Forvie workshop, having presumably hitched a ride on a vehicle / mower / staff member (delete as appropriate). Now I am far from knowledgeable when it comes to caterpillar ID, but a bit of carefully-directed internet research threw up some images of what appeared to be the same beast. So with a degree of caution I was able to identify the stowaway as a Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing moth – a widespread species whose adult form is, I promise, rather more attractive than its caterpillar.
If you thought that was ugly, the second mystery caterpillar was downright hideous. Again, a bit of research pointed towards two closely-related moth species, whose caterpillars look identical, namely Light Arches and Dark Arches. The latter is a very common moth at Forvie, so the law of averages suggests that this caterpillar is a Dark Arches. Look out for these in grassland just now as they search for somewhere to pupate.
At the end of the week, the first damselfly of the year appeared at the small pond outside the Forvie Centre. The Large Red Damselfly isn’t actually very large at all, but all things are relative in the damselfly world. What is absolutely indisputable, though, is how magnificent these insects look when they’re newly minted, their colours gleaming among the waterside vegetation.
Now that we’re moving from spring into early summer (!), we’re approaching the time when our female Roe Deer will be giving birth. Indeed, some may already have done so. A doe at Sand Loch in the week was unusually approachable, hinting at the possible presence of a fawn (or two) tucked away in the long grass nearby. I quickly moved on just in case, to avoid causing any unnecessary stress.
When Roe Deer fawns are very young, their mothers leave them hidden in a safe place, returning every now and then to feed them; consequently it’s very unusual to see them when they’re small. It’s very important that if you ever find a fawn in the grass, don’t be tempted to touch it: the mother locates her offspring by scent, and any human scent on the fawn may cause the mother to abandon it. The acute vulnerability of Roe Deer mothers and fawns is another compelling reason to keep dogs on leads throughout the Reserve at this time of the year.
Meanwhile, the Roe bucks are busy preparing for the summer rut (mating season). Having shed last year’s antlers, they have now finished growing this year’s set, and are in the final throes of scrubbing the velvety covering from them and exposing the gleaming ‘ivory’ below. This they do by thrashing their antlers against woody vegetation, the favoured type at Forvie being willow scrub. As well as removing the velvet, the thrashing also spreads the buck’s scent onto the willows. The resulting trail of wrecked vegetation and masculine scent leave his potential partners and rivals in no doubt as to his prowess.
Finding these ‘thrashing-posts’ provides a small insight into the secretive world of the Roe Deer, which despite their abundance still retain a degree of mystery. They’re another example of the unseen world right on our very doorsteps. Stay curious, folks!