A former sporting estate near Loch Ness in Scotland is fast becoming a biodiversity hotspot that rivals many more exotic locations.
Penny Bunting reports.
Imagine a place where new or endangered species are being identified regularly. Or where creatures presumed to have been locally extinct for decades are being rediscovered. Where is this place? Madagascar, perhaps, or the forests of Costa Rica?
In fact, Britons don’t have to travel long haul to find such a destination – we have one right on our doorstep. Just to the west of the world famous Loch Ness, there is a former sporting estate that has been described as a “lost world”.
The Dundreggan estate – today a flagship site in an ambitious Highlands conservation project – lies in Glenmoriston. Its name is derived from the Gaelic Dul Dreagain, the Dragon’s Haugh.
While no dragons have been discovered in this remarkable corner of Inverness-shire, a number of biodiversity surveys carried out in recent years have revealed at least 60 priority species for conservation, as listed in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. In total, more than 3,200 species have been recorded on the 10,000-acre estate so far, including eight that had never been recorded before in the UK, and with a range of rare and endangered species.
As we head deeper into the United Nations Decade of Biodiversity (2011 – 2020) these fascinating finds bring home the rich and varied flora and fauna present in the UK – some of which may not have been discovered yet. The fact that so much has been found at Dundreggan, in such a small area, should make us question what else might be out there – in Scotland certainly, and perhaps even in other areas of the UK.
“The secrets slowly being revealed on this Highland estate suggest that we have much more to learn about the true extent of Scotland’s biodiversity,” says Alan Watson Featherstone, Executive Director of Trees for Life, the award-winning conservation charity that purchased the Dundreggan estate back in 2008.
Perhaps one of the most exciting finds at Dundreggan Conservation Estate is the sawfly species Nematus pseudodispar. It has never been recorded in the UK before and in fact is extremely rare throughout the whole of Europe, having only been found before in Latvia and Finland, where it is recognised as a boreal forest specialist.
This is just one of at least 120 species of sawfly that have now been identified at the site. Others include a species of Amauronematus that is also highly unlikely to have been recorded in the UK before, and the first record in Scotland of the ‘palisade’ sawfly (Stauronematus platycerus).
Guy Knight, Curator of Entomology at National Museums Liverpool, has described the finds from his scientific studies at Dundreggan as “quite exceptional”, adding it was “very difficult to find a parallel in the Highlands”.
As well as the many sawfly species, the second-ever British sighting of a waxfly species (Helicoconis hirtinervis) has been recorded there, along with what is believed to be the first Highland record of the juniper shieldbug (Cyphostethus tristriatus). Meanwhile, the nationally scarce and spectacularly-coloured strawberry spider (Araneus alsine) is just one type of spider recently discovered.
Above: sawfly; strawberry spider © Alan Watson-Featherstone.
Another rare creature making an unexpected appearance was the golden horsefly (Atylotus fulvus). This invertebrate has only been seen once before in Scotland, and that was as long ago as 1923.
Many of these creatures are listed in the UK’s Red Data Book of endangered species, and some were previously unknown in Scotland, or were feared to be extinct there. The mining bee (Andrena marginata) for example, had been presumed extinct in Scotland, with only one record since 1949 until a local volunteer naturalist discovered good numbers of the insect on the estate in 2007 (it has also subsequently been found in Strathspey).
The azure hawker dragonfly (Aeshna caerulea), which is classified as Vulnerable and under-recorded in Scotland, has been another key find. A study by dragonfly expert Jonathan Willet suggested that Dundreggan has the largest known area in Scotland of contiguous breeding habitat for this stunning turquoise insect, as well as being home to the near-threatened northern emerald dragonfly.
Above: azure hawker dragonfly; mining bee © Alan Watson-Featherstone.
It’s not just invertebrates that are thriving on the estate, though. Resident populations of water voles, pine martens and three different species of deer are present, along with mountain hares, otters and brown long-eared bats.
There are a huge variety of birds, too, with at least 95 different species recorded. Many of these are listed in the Biodiversity Action Plan, including the common cuckoo, black grouse and spotted flycatcher.
“The richness and diversity of life on Dundreggan is astonishing,” says Watson Featherstone.
So what has led to such a diversity of life in this tiny corner of Scotland?
The diversity of natural habitats on the site is key to this. These range from riparian and floodplain woodland through wildflower meadows and Caledonian pinewood remnants to mires, bogs and what is perhaps the greatest concentration of dwarf birch scrub in the country. These provide a wealth of ecological niches and homes for many different species.
However, although those habitats are supporting such a good range of biodiversity, many of them are not in good condition. Heavy overgrazing by sheep and red deer has left large areas open and treeless, a far cry from its original form as ancient native woodland. But with careful management of grazing animals, the damage to trees is being reduced, and native saplings are being given the opportunity to grow and thrive.
Much of the woodland is birch, although oak, aspen, Scots pine, hazel, ash and wych elm are also present. And Dundreggan has some of the best stands of Juniper – another priority species for conservation, and vital for the survival of invertebrates such as the juniper shieldbug and juniper sawfly – in the Highlands.
There are surviving pockets of ancient woodland, too. These are remnants of the native pinewoods of the Caledonian Forest: a vast woodland, steeped in mythology and folklore, that once covered huge tracts of the Highlands. Only a small percentage of the former forest survives today, a result largely of human activity – such as farming and forestry – over many centuries. But by 2058 Trees for Life aims to increase the tree and scrub cover in Dundreggan to 60 per cent of the estate, as part of a long-term plan to restore the Caledonian Forest.
A further part of the charity’s vision is the reintroduction of rare woodland wildlife, plants and insects. Restoring the native forest will provide habitats for species that would once have been present, and within the next half century it is hoped that animals such as European beavers, osprey and capercaillie will once again be seen at Dundreggan.
Red squirrels, on the other hand, will hopefully take up residence much sooner than this: they are present in neighbouring areas of Glenmoriston, and are being encouraged onto the estate.
Above: great spotted woodpecker; dunnock © Alan Watson-Featherstone.
Above: juniper sawfly larva © Alan Watson-Featherstone; woodland at Dundreggan © Penny Bunting
Dundreggan is already home to a small wild boar population, following their successful establishment inside a fenced area of ancient birchwood in 2009. Wild boar have been missing from the area for 400 years, yet they play an important role in the forest ecosystem, both by reducing bracken, and also by disturbing the soil, which allows the regeneration of native trees and flowering plants.
Visitors to the estate can see the wild boar by following one of a number of way-marked trails around the estate. A wildlife-watching hide – with a feeding station specially designed to attract pine martens – can be visited too.
Each animal or plant – from the largest mammal to the tiniest fungus – plays its own essential part in the ecosystem of the forest, and works to keep a balance that will eventually allow the forest to become self-sustaining.
“Given the loss of biodiversity globally, the richness of life on the estate highlights the importance of on-the-ground conservation projects, and the urgency of restoring Scotland’s Caledonian Forest,” says Watson Featherstone.
Dundreggan provides an essential wildlife corridor of woodland and scrub linking Glen Affric to Glenmoriston. In the future, it is hoped that the owners of neighbouring estates will be inspired to take action to restore their own land – making Dundreggan part of a much larger area of native woodland. This will allow an even greater diversity of wildlife to live in and move around the Highlands.
Green Adventures August 2015
Top left: greylag geese; bottom left: wild boar © Alan Watson-Featherstone
Right: Dundreggan view © Penny Bunting
Volunteers carry out much of the conservation and restoration work at Dundreggan, with volunteer conservation holidays and educational visits offered at the estate. For more information about volunteering for Trees for Life, click here.
For more of Alan Watson-Featherstone’s photographs, and regular news about the Dundreggan project, see his blog at www.alansblog.org.uk
Top: rainbow over Dundreggan; above left: birch trees © Alan Watson-Featherstone.
Above right: waymarked trails guide visitors through the estate © Penny Bunting