Friday was the last day in a spell of clear, frosty weather – perfect for a visit to Ballachuan hazel wood on the island of Seil. Historically and ecologically, this wood is a very special place. NatureScot explains:
“Atlantic hazel occurs in the oceanic climatic areas of the western British Isles. It is found widely along Britain and Ireland’s west coasts. But the hazel only develops into Atlantic hazelwood, a habitat of high biodiversity, in very few places… Our ancient and species-rich Atlantic hazelwoods are among Scotland’s oldest woodlands. They are older by far than our Atlantic oakwoods and even some of our Caledonian pinewoods. Hazel was one of the first woody species to establish in the west as the ice retreated about 11,000 years ago.”
Although we’ve been to Ballachuan in every season, I’ve never been there at catkin-time, and I wanted to see what it looked like with the catkins out. A dry day, with the ground still hard with frost, seemed like an ideal opportunity.
Ballachuan Loch was partly frozen, and some bored-looking gulls were standing on the ice, watching a party of mallards and a swan feeding in open water. We climbed over the stiles, crossed the sheep field and followed the path into the wood at its north-western end.
I was half-expecting to be walking through a profusion of catkins, but to my surprise I saw none at all. In the dim light, the trees were damp, mossy, silent – and bare. Then I looked directly up, through the latticed canopy, to the topmost branches. All the catkins were hanging high above our heads, bathed in sunlight! Of course, that’s where they would appear, on the outermost branches that are exposed to the weather, so that the wind can shake the pollen from the male catkins and transport it to the female flowers.
Roughly in the centre of the wood are some clearings where the trees give way to open patches of hill. Here, on the south-facing fringes, the catkins were lower down on the trees and more accessible. Most, we noticed, were still tightly held, although one or two were loosening up and showing the tips of their tiny greenish-yellow flowers. I get the feeling that they will all come out together. Another week, or maybe more, and the wood will be a sea of dancing lambs’ tails.
From the open hill, we could hear geese calling as they moved around the fields, and jays were squawking somewhere close by. But once we’d stepped back into the greenish twilight of the hazel wood, it seemed as if everything was still asleep. Our footsteps fell softly on the frosted leaf litter. Nothing moved. There was no birdsong. When we stopped and listened, I felt as if I could hear the trees dreaming.
Here and there, a piece of broken branch was suspended, as if by magic, against another – fixed there by glue fungus (Hymenochaete corrugata) which is common in hazel woods. Why should we be surprised that hazels, trees of witchcraft and divination, can hold objects in mid-air? Perhaps they can arrest time, too. On the pale bark of the younger stems – slender and straight as spears – lichens have drawn maps and contours, but left no key.
Above: Glue fungus in action; below: lichens on hazel stem
Towards the eastern side, some massively tall beech trees stand like giants amid the ‘hobbit’ hazels, which give them a wide berth. Here, the wood slopes down towards Seil Sound, a narrow neck of sea that separates the island from the mainland. The little inlets of the shore, hard to get to from above, will be the haunt of otters. Behind a screen of branches, we watched a heron fishing from an ‘island’ not much bigger than himself.
We turned and retraced our steps. The sun was already heading south, but the days are now perceptibly longer. As we came out of the wood, a single chaffinch was singing.
More information: Scottish Wildlife Trust
Photos © Colin & Jo Woolf