Monday, 23 March 2015

A 50 year old beard meets Abernethy Forests 2nd oldest tree

The snow showers continued into the first week of February but with a sunny +80C on the 9th and an even better +140C on the 18th, much of the low-ground snow had disappeared by the end of the month.  Perhaps the lack of heavy snow showers early in the month fooled my brain into thinking conditions in the countryside were getting better and an outing on 6th to one of my aspen mapping 
Early cyclamens
sites near Grantown ended up with the words “horror day out” in my diary as the whole visit was carried out in wellie deep snow!  Not nice.  Despite the snow a small group of cyclamen plants in a garden in the village popped their purple heads up above the snow giving the slightest hint that spring was on its way.  Our faithful great spotted woodpecker was heard drumming from its usual tree on 5th and with blackbirds in sub-song and robins clearing their throats around the same date at least the birds were hinting at better days to come.

To celebrate my beard’s fiftieth birthday on 2nd we headed once again to the green and snowless countryside around Nairn for the day.  The leaves of lesser celandine were starting to appear in the woods by the River Nairn and the pointy heads of butterbur were showing enough to give a hint of the eruption of white flower-heads that would occur within a week or two.  In the woods close to an 
Winter aconites
ex-“estate-house” the woodland floor was a mass of yellow and white with winter aconites flowering in profusion in amongst carpets of snowdrops.  A meeting with Ron re the book mentioned in the last blog a few days later left a few queries to follow up mainly linked to the past history of Abernethy Forest.  The brilliant websites linked to old maps of the area helped sort many of the place-name queries, but the route of the old “puggy railway” used to extract timber from the forest failed to turn up on any of them.  Thankfully, the location of the track-bed is still visible in some parts of the forest and during past bog restoration work even a short section of railway line was found.  Quite a bit of time was spent discussing how some of the timber produced in the forest was used, particularly Scots pines in the forest infected by resin-top fungus (Peridermium pini or Cronartium flaccidum).  Over 
2nd oldest tree currently
known in Abernethy Forest
many years this fungus allows sap to rise but not to fall in the autumn and eventually a distinctive area of curled/hard bark develops towards the top of the tree where the heart wood and sap wood becomes solid with resin.  This resin blockage eventually kills the tree.  In modern times folk living close to the forest knew of these trees and the logs cut from the resin rich section were chopped up being highly valued as “rosit/roset” kindlers for lighting the fire!  Ron had found that a couple of hundred years ago folk travelled to the forest to collect these sections of resin filled tree which they cut into tiny slivers probably 1-2 cm square, and were lit like candles to light their homes.  These slivers were known as fir-candles (not fork-handles!) and special adjustable holders were made so the candle could be swivelled round to provide the best light location in the old black houses.  Ancient Scots pines were also discussed with Ron mentioning that a few had been found in Abernethy with letters or initials carved into them as though “claimed” by a local as their tree possibly to provide fir-candles or firewood.  One tree mentioned was classed as the second oldest Abernethy tree, dated by coring, to 1640, and that this tree had the letter “B” inscribed in one of a couple of axe “attacks” on the tree.  Worth visiting suggested Ron and as we said cheerio I headed off up the road to meet this ancient being with axe marks and letters.  The lack of snow in Nethybridge stopped my brain from working, completely forgetting that the dusting we had had the day before would possibly be several inches higher up in the forest.  Thankfully, the wee Fiesta was up to the task, and with a bit of Hannu Mikkola steering I reached the parking spot ready for my trek to THE tree.  Interestingly, the Scots pine, despite its large stature, didn’t look that different to other big old pines encountered in Abernethy and particularly 
Axe marks in Scots pine
Rothiemurchus forest so it would be interesting to age a few more by coring.  However, it did have the extra bit of “history” and I was interested to see the various marks reported by Ron.  The axe marks, found in two places, were certainly old, and over the years the annual growth outwards had left the axe marks well embedded in the tree, so we weren’t looking at modern axe wounds.  The marks, one very large and one quite small had obviously not caused the tree too much stress and apart from a couple of large branched which looked like they had been detached during heavy snow, the tree seemed in not bad health for its age at 375 years.  The tree might be a little older because when the tree was cored to find its age, the centre of the tree had decayed so it could be as old as 400.  There are records of Scots pines living for up to 600 years in Sweden.  On the edge of one of the axed areas the letter B could be seen and had been stamped three times, not cut by hand but created by 
Letter B stamped on tree
some well-made hardened metal punch, creating letters about three-quarters of an inch tall.  Information from a Swedish expert who had visited the tree suggested it had also been burnt, though evidence of burn-marks had long gone.  It is known that pines that suffer fire damage also become rich in resin so whether the axe marks were created by someone taking slivers of resin-rich wood away for candles or kindlers and marking the tree to claim ownership, we can only guess.  Whatever, it was nice to meet up with such an old tree which was also probably the source of seed for the trees in the surrounding forest.

News of the success of the BSBI and CNPA botanical survey during summer 2014 had also reached BBC Scotland and I was asked to do an interview for the “Out of Doors” programme.  The first question though was “will there be any flowers to see?” and, knowing there is always something to see, I said I would check the general area close to the Osprey Centre car park, where one of only two patches of twinflower were found during the survey.  Two interesting plants with evergreen leaves were found, common wintergreen and creeping lady’s tresses along with all the usual plants of the forest floor like cowberry, heather and blaeberry with just a hint of new leaves appearing.  Gales and sleet on the day had me worried about a call-off, but Mark Stevens, the presenter appeared on time, 
The distinctive Colpoma quercinum fungus on dead oak twig
and after a quick interview talking about the wintergreen and a bit about how the surveys were planned and walked he said he thought he had enough and within about 45 minutes everything was done and dusted – and we didn’t even leave the car park.  On the following Saturday a few folk said they had heard me on the radio and once I caught up with the broadcast it appeared that the one-off take was used in full and followed up with some complimentary studio chat by Mark hinting that “that man can talk for Britain on conservation”.  Phew, he’ll be wanting to pay me next!  With the interview over quite quickly I had time to just pop down the road to Loch Pityoulish to check out the ancient oaks for something that was being discussed in the last edition of Field Mycology (Vol 16 (1)), a wee fungus, Colpoma quercinum, which grows on dead twigs attached to live branches with 
Section through Colpoma fungus
the whole still attached to the tree.  There are less than 500 UK records and the ones local to the Cairngorms National Park were from 1912 (x2) and 1991 (x1).  The article talked about folk who knew the fungus would walk into say Windsor Great Park and almost find it on the first tree, so once again it looked like we were talking about a lack of boots on the ground looking rather than the fungus being rare.  Finding low branches for twigs to check proved the more difficult part of the search but eventually some dead twigs were found with what looked like the characteristic “slit” with dark innards, and a couple retained to see if I could find the spores to confirm the species.  The twigs had both open slits and “lumps” which had yet to open and between the two sources I was able to 
Colpoma quercinum spores
find the spores and a quick email to Martyn (the Windsor Great Park finder) confirmed that I was onto the right species.  That was the easy bit.  The article then went on to say that there were even fewer records of a corticioid fungus known as Marchandiomyces (=Corticium) quercinus which is parasitic on the first species and the carrot being dangled (once again) was that there are no records from Scotland.  So, all I need in the second half of March, is a bit of rain and another visit to our local oak trees, of which we have just a few.  I’ll let you know how we get on.

The aspen mapping work continued through February with another five map areas visited and checked.  A couple of the maps with lots of red polygons to check provided few aspen locations, one area being mainly alder tree locations and the other around Coylumbridge mainly dead Scots pines, 
Lobaria scrobiculata
both trees looking like aspens when the area was flown and photographed.  However, the other three map areas produced both ancient aspens and brilliant lichen communities.  The first was the “horror” site mentioned at the start of the blog where the whole visit was undertaken in conditions of deep snow where one of the trees had good populations of lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) and the textured lungwort (L. scrobiculata).  Tracks in the snow showed that there was just me, roe deer and the odd 
Mystery slide marks in snow
fox wandering around in less than ideal conditions.  On one steep slope a set of marks spied from a distance of possibly something sliding down the slope, had me scratching my head so I wandered over to have a look as to what might have caused them.  I have heard of otters sliding down snow covered slopes and that is what might have been responsible here, but I couldn’t find any evidence of tracks of the creator by the marks or directly attached to the end of the slide marks.  Rabbits were seen on the slope but the marks didn’t seem right for them.  The other thing I thought about was the possibility of a naturally rolling snow-ball, gathering snow as it rolled, but the neat, slightly rounded depression was too even along its length for this to be the cause.  As I had been walking across the steep sections of snow covered slope I had been dislodging lumps of snow which took off under their 
One of the ancient Newtonmore aspens
own weight, rolling down the slope and gathering snow as they rolled.  Some of these “wheel shaped balls” had increased in size to a couple of feet in diameter by the time they came to a halt, but the indent they left in the snow didn’t match what I was seeing in front of me.  Another of life’s wee mysteries.  Top of the list for ancient aspens, lichens and the odd moss was the next map square to the one already visited (in January) close to the Newtonmore Riding School.  Almost every tree had populations of the textured lungwort, unusual for round here, along with the lichens Pannaria conoplea, Fuscopannaria mediterranea, Collema furfuraceum and the wee moss Zygodon conoideus only identified by a lucky find of a single distinctive gemma when trying to identify the moss by its 
Zygodon conoideus leaf under microscope
leaf size and cell make up via the microscope.  Gemmae (plural) are found in many mosses and provides a means of “asexual” reproduction meaning it is able to produce offspring in the absence of a mate or by cross-fertilisation.  This means that the offspring are clones of the parent plant.  Checking more leaves produced more club-shaped gemmae, and the identification eventually came down to how many divisions there were (cells) within each gemma, which in my case was 7-8.  The identification was finally confirmed by contacting expert bryologist Gordon, a necessary final step as 
Zygodon conoideus gemma
the moss appeared to be new to the Cairngorms National Park area.  Two very odd things happen during this visit.  With so many ancient trees I thought it a little odd that I hadn’t seen any flaky freckle pelt lichen (Peltigera britannica) and it turned up on the next tree visited.  Right at the end of my visit it dawned on me that, unusually for me, I hadn’t found any of my favourite pinhead lichen Sclerophora pallida.  The next old birch tree I encountered had a patch of dark bark where there had been a sap-run – one of the pinheads favoured habitats – and sure enough, there it was!  Spooky. The 
The amazing fallen but live aspen
last aspen site was on the River Dulnain near Carrbridge where again many aspens has small populations of the textured lungwort, and others with the lichens flaky freckle pelt, lungwort, textured lungwort and Degelia plumbea, the latter growing on perhaps the most amazing fallen, but live aspen I’ve ever seen.  Despite being on its side new stems had grown from the top of the root-plate and many of the stems of the fallen tree had continued to grow, effectively turning one tree into many.  This part of the woodland also had an amazing amount of natural aspen regrowth, suckers developing from the underground aspen roots of the mature trees.

My copy of Field Mycology which arrived in early February and mentioned briefly above, was quite special to me as, within its pages, was the end product of something that started back on 13th April 2013.  That was the day I encountered tiny black dots on the leaves of a patch of twinflower (Linnaea borealis) and then covered over the months in earlier blogs.  The black dots turned out to be the 
Twinflower (Linnaea borealis)
micro-fungus Metacoleroa dickiei and led to me visiting 19 different twinflower populations, local to home and into Morayshire, to see how often the fungus occurred on the plants leaves.  It was found at 14 of the sites.  What was also turning up was a second, much smaller fungus which initially was named as Sphaerulina leightonii but, due to the diligence and perseverance of Martyn Ainsworth at Kew, this fungus was eventually named as Ceramothyrium linnaeae, a fungus never recorded in Britain before.  One find I made via the Firwood microscope which I called my “Angel of the North” (see blog July 2014) helped a little with this process and let Martyn know he was on the right track when discounting S. leightonii.  In late 2013 myself and Martyn had written the first draft of a paper 
Septoria linnaeae on twinflower leaves
covering our finds (including finding a third micro-fungus Septoria linnaeae on the twinflower leaves) but still at a time when we had, unknowingly, the “wrong” fungus identified!  As Martyn’s doubts rose the paper was put on hold and, with plenty of twinflower leaves to work with, the new species started to emerge.  More work was undertaken at Kew by Martyn and Paul Cannon and by autumn 2014 new drafts of our paper started to circulate and the final draft went to the editors of Field Mycology for inclusion in Volume 16 in January 2015.  My copy arrived, complete with the 
twinflower paper, a great honour for me particularly when a joint author with two well-known figures in the world of mycology.  I did the leg work and made the initial finds but without the huge amount of work initially undertaken by Martyn with later technical input from Paul, the paper wouldn’t have made it to print.  I can but thank them both for their help.  However, out there somewhere, is another species found by the Rev. William Allport Leighton in August 1837 on twinflower leaves in Glen Doll.  To be concluded.

That’s it for another month, enjoy the read
Stewart and Janet

Scottish Black House information
Tree coring
Highland Biological Recording Group
and how to join HBRG

One of many "wildcat trail" cats found hiding behind an aspen!
More feral goats at Newtonmore
Hint of spring - the first oystercatchers

Photos © Stewart Taylor