Hidden Forests

Year of Natural Scotland – Beneath the Waves

Kelp on the beach at Ardivachar

Kelp on the beach at Ardivachar

The wind is rising and the rain is hammering against the window. As high tide approaches the waves are pounding the ancient rocks creating fountains of spray. The grey sea merges with the low cloud, obscuring the horizon in the fading light. The very epitome of a winter afternoon on the edge of the north Atlantic – bleak, cold, gun-metal grey. However on a calm day, even in winter, the crystal clear waters will reveal a hidden landscape that is rich in wildlife and as colourful and mystical as any tropical reef.

The continental shelf extents westward from the Outer Hebrides until it meets the deep waters of the Rockall Trough. The complex topography of the sea floor and confluence of warm waters of the North Atlantic Drift (Gulf Stream) and cold polar currents bring nutrients to the surface creating an environment which supports a rich and diverse marine fauna and flora. These deep waters have yet to reveal all their secrets but on the continental shelf there are vast kelp forests which biologically are as important as any ancient terrestrial woodland. Where the sea bed shelves gently this diverse community of plants and animals extends up to 5 km offshore. The exceptionally clear Hebridean waters enable macro marine algae (seaweeds) to grow to depths of 20m and even as much as 40m.
You don’t need a boat or an Aqualung to explore these remarkable forests, you can see the stalks (stipes) sticking out of the water at low tide and the fronds gently undulating as the waves rise and fall. This is kelp (brown macro-algae – Laminariaceae) which has a tree-like structure and grows in vast congregations in shallow waters. As the water deepens and the light levels fall the forests give way to kelp parks where the plants are more scattered and other species begin to predominate. Do not be deceived by the dark brown tangles of slippery weed washed up on the beach; look closely it is a symphony in brown, ochreous yellow to rich mahogany with a hint of green and a touch of red.

Oarweed (Laminaria digitata)

Oarweed (Laminaria-digitata) – one of the five species of kelp found growing in Scottish coastal waters. Found in shallow waters on rocky shores it forms the outer fringe of the kelp forest

These are not the dark tangled wild woods of a Grimm nightmare but refuges for a variety of small invertebrates and fish. No sinister monsters lurk here, except maybe a lobster or marauding starfish. Within the shelter of the forest sea anemones, sea squirts, sponges delicate seaweeds, small fish and a host of strange invertebrates all find protection from the force of the waves. Some like the anemones, sponges and encrusting red algae cling the to rocks and boulders within the forest, red and orange jewels glowing in the diffuse filtered sunlight. Filamentous red seaweeds adhere to the stipes like feathery lichens on a branch whilst bryozoans form mosaic mats on the fronds.

Throughout the winter mountains of kelp are washed onto the shore by the winter gales and as it rots it releases organic material into the food chain. This is used directly by small marine grazing animals whilst the detritus and dissolved nutrients are trapped by filter feeding animals which in turn are eaten by larger animals. This organic recycling is essentially the same as nutrient cycling in terrestrial ecosystems. After a while the mounds of kelp piled on the beach begin to heave with life, this is the perfect environment for larvae of seaweed flies which are enthusiastically hunted by flocks of starlings and small wading birds.
These hidden forests are important marine and coastal ecosystems in terms of their biodiversity and productivity, and in the Outer Hebrides and Northern Isles they are also of economic importance. In the same way that coral reefs protect low-lying tropical shores these vast areas of undulating kelp help to dampen impact of Atlantic waves on the sandy shores of many Scottish islands.
The storm cast kelp is collected from the beaches to be used as an organic fertiliser on the machair and inbye fields. Once gathered by women and children into creels and transported by pony it is now a modern mechanised operation involving tractors and agricultural trailers. In the 18th and 19th centuries the tangle was collected to extract the potash and soda for glass and soap manufacture and later for iodine extraction. This industry collapsed when cheaper alternatives were found with devastating effects on the local economy. It is still collected, on a small-scale, for the extraction of alginates for the pharmaceutical and food industry.
At present this complex habitat is safe and we can all enjoy the delights of slipping and sliding among the tangle looking for hidden animals. However if it s to be exploited let us hope that it’s biodiversity is not wrecked by uncontrolled, large-scale commercial harvesting.


Words for Wednesday


North Wind Eric Gill (1929) – Tate Britain

Opus 1

Wind strums the sinews
plucking nerves – discordant chords

Stretching skin taught
beating – staccato rhythm

Striking the ribs
expelling air – bass sibilance

Resonating vibrating
pulsing – elemental beat

Man and wind contrapuntal soloists
before the storm’s crescendo

The January Garden – Looking Both Ways

Janus Pater

Painting from the ceiling of Waltham Abbey.© Steve Day

Janus Pater, firstborn of Roman deities, presides over all transitions and beginnings, the door keeper, guardian of the new year, and custodian of the calendar, from whom January takes its name. In deference to Janus I am ambivalent about January – the lengthening days tell me to look forward as spring is coming, but the cold wind and darkening skies remind me that winter still lingers. If I push against the door too hard will I hasten the warmth of the spring sun or will February gales slam it shut in my face?
January roared in with wind and rain, so it was time to look back at the past gardening year and begin to plan for the next growing season. Time to peruse the seed catalogues in expectation and reflect on the packets of seed from last year still lurking in the box. Shall I impose discipline and austerity or be profligate and extravagant?
As I spread the seaweed and garden compost on the vegetable beds for the next generation of vegetables the past still lingers – the calabrese is still producing tender young florets, the red cabbage radiates colour in a desolate cabbage patch while last of the carrots slumber next to globes of celeriac. New life is stirs in other parts of the garden as the first tender, buttery leaves of rhubarb thrust aside their protective collars of nourishing seaweed. Under cover some of the over-wintering plants are already responding to the lengthening days, the Florence fennel promises me crisp juicy bulbs by March, the beetroot and spinach offer me tender leaves for a winter salad whilst the shoots of the winter onions stretch in search of the sun.
The cottage garden is desolate with only the faded broken stems of last year’s flowers to remind me of their past glories. A rich dark mulch of compost helps dispel the air of neglect and here and there the bright green spears of the spring bulbs promise me smiles. The primroses continue to bloom in defiance of the chill winds and harbor the first of the snowdrops as they emerge as perfect in miniature complete with tiny pure blooms – droplets of snow glistening in the late afternoon sun.
red cabbage

Year of Natural Scotland 2013

Now that the vapours of the Hogmanay have cleared we can start celebrating again for 2013 is the Year of Natural Scotland. If you ask anyone about Scotland somewhere in the mix of tartan, bagpipes, whisky and haggis there will be golden eagles, red deer stags, otters, mountains, lochs, glens and heather. There is of course more, much more………
I could spend all year waxing lyrical about the landscapes and wildlife of the Outer Hebrides and especially South Uist and still not convey the the magic of these islands, but a few carefully chosen photographs may help distil the essence. There will be an super abundance of photographs of Scotland’s equivalent to Africa’s Big 5  in the media, so I’m going to feature some of our wonderful small scale flora and fauna. I’ll begin with some of the of the animals, plants and fungi found on our croft at Ardivachar.

If you’re impatient to learn more about our wildlife you might like to visit some of the following: HebridenisOuter Hebrides Biological Recording Project, Curracag Wildlife News

Year Natural Scotland 2013