2013 in photos: A week in the Caledonian forest

ancient juniper with dead sheep

Less than 1 percent of the ancient Caledonian forest remains, much of it in the Abernethy region, where Rachel and I camped for a week in mid July. She wanted to prove to me that real forests still existed in the British Isles. Our first evening there, I went for a walk and discovered this dead sheep.

juniper grove 2

It was on the edge of a rather unique, elfin woodland some 30 acres in extent that consisted almost entirely of junipers.

bones on the moor

In the moor surrounding the junipers, I found more remains of what I took to be sheep. Things were certainly beginning to look up.

white orchid on moor

A few feet away, a heath spotted orchid was in full bloom,

hare bell

and the hare bells glowed in the setting sun.

fruticose lichens

Best of all were the lichens of every description

belichened birch 2

that festooned juniper and birch limbs alike.

belichened birch along Nethy River

Whole trunks were covered with fruticose lichens, making us think that some of these trees must be a lot older than their small size might otherwise suggest.


The summer was both late and dry. The earliest heathers were just coming into bloom,

pines and cotton grass, Abernethy forest

boggy patches dotted with cottongrass barely dampened our shoes,

yellow vetch in sunset light

the moorland was parched

dried mudflat, River Spey

and the rivers were low.

Nethy Bridge sign

Our campground was on the edge of the charming village of Nethy Bridge, which sells itself as “the forest village.”

Arduous camping, version 2

The Lazy Duck Campground takes laziness seriously. (Photo by Rachel, obviously.)

art in the woods

A public footpath along the Nethy River as it passed through the village was lined with eco-art projects of varying quality. A few of them, like this macrame creation, were really well done.

trashed flowers

Others, not so much.

Loch Garten Osprey Centre 1

One day, we took a walk over to the famous Osprey Centre at Loch Garten, now the center of a large nature reserve owned and managed by the RSPB.

Loch Garten Osprey Centre 3

This year’s birds had just fledged and were still hanging around the nest.

Loch Garten Osprey Centre 4

The center was well equipped with binoculars, spotting scopes, and video screens displaying the feeds from nest cams. I was impressed not only by the set-up but by the whole approach to conservation there: using a few charismatic species to build support for preserving and recovering an endangered ecosystem.

capercaillie sculpture

Another such species is the capercaille, which we weren’t fortunate enough to see — this chainsaw sculpture outside the Osprey Centre was as close as we got.

tree stand in the Abernethy forest

On the seven-mile walk back to Nethy Bridge, I spotted a tree stand at the far edge of a bog, evidence of the RSPB’s most controversial technique for forest recovery: culling the too-numerous deer. (They tried fencing, but abandoned that approach when they discovered too many dead capercaillies that had collided with the fences in flight.)

Scots pine, Abernethy forest

Though most stands of Scots pine — the dominant tree — didn’t appear to be more than a century old, there was a generous scattering of older trees among them.

summer evening in the Abernethy forest

This sort of open forest with a groundcover of bilberries (which are very like our lowbush blueberries and huckleberries) was perfect habitat for capercaillies, as we learned in a lecture by the RSPB’s capercaillie specialist a few days later. The trouble is that the remaining habitat is too fragmented by development. And sadly, the designation of the surrounding area as Cairngorms National Park ten years ago has only accelerated the pace of development. It’s a park in name only, created mainly for tourists rather than for wildlife.

Abernethy Nature Reserve sign

The RSPB is doing an impressive job of preserving land, but they can only do so much. It’s sad that the country that gave us John Muir doesn’t seem to understand the value of wildness.

dead spruce branches

Between deer overbrowsing, habitat fragmentation, and invasive species (above, Norway spruce), I felt right at home.

red squirrel on feeder

It was fun to watch the native red squirrels — now so threatened by invasive American gray squirrels in the U.K. that people actually put out feeders for them.

Nethy River path

But I don’t mean to accentuate the negative. We had a wonderful time, and one week was barely enough time to get the lay of the land, figure out the extensive trail system, and make a few friends. I hope we get to go back there some day.

4 Replies to “2013 in photos: A week in the Caledonian forest”

  1. Thanks for this window into that part of the world, Dave. These are lovely.

    I don’t know enough about different kinds of squirrels. Where I grew up, in Texas, the squirrels were grey. Here in the Berkshires I see mostly red ones. I wonder whether they’re the same as the English ones?

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