I’m not quite sure why but the Birch woods of Scotland truly captivate me, more so than any other woodland type I frequently visit. Spruce plantation (shudders), Beech and Oak woodland, even the famed Caledonian Pine forests; in my opinion nothing comes close to these gnarled expanses of Birch. Scotland’s most prevalent woodland type; dominating areas of infertile soil – often in the uplands – Birch woodland is a truly fascinating habitat. Made up almost entirely of Silver (Betula pendula) and Downy Birch (Betula pubescens), occasionally intertwined with stands of Aspen (Populus tremula) and Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), such woodlands boast a distinctly primeval feel. Rapidly growing birch, wind pollinated and tolerant of the cold, being the first species to colonise the UK following the ice age. In such woodlands, time appears to stand still and though countless generations of trees have sprouted then fallen since then, one can easily picture what a great deal of Britain would have looked like in the not too distant past.
I have been privileged enough to spend quite a bit of time in Scotland over the years and a great deal of this has been spent roaming around birch woods – often out of breath and sweating due to the tendency for these growths to spread across undulating, rather steep ground. Everything about such places enthralls me. The primeval feel I mentioned previously only bolstered by a splendid variety of moss, lichen, fungi and ferns. Here the twisted branches are coated in Oakmoss and Old Man’s Beard; Hoof Fungus and Birch Polypore adorn decaying trunks and the woodland floor is coated in a layer of vibrant hair moss. Wild flowers too persevere; anemones, celandines and violets bejeweling the floor during the spring months, strewn amid tufts of heather and Bilberry. Truly, there is always something to admire in the Birch woods of the north; plentiful floral elements to appreciate and enjoy and ample fungi to fondle – though, for me, it is fauna as opposed to flora that holds perhaps the greatest allure.
Wood Anemone, Usnea subfloridana, Hoof Fungus , Hard Fern , Dog Violet and Lesser Celandine
Birch wood fauna never fails to impress whether you are searching for reptiles, mammals or invertebrates. I’ve seen Adders here more times than I can count, Slow Worms too while many, many visits have been accompanied by the barking of Roe Deer, the frantic squeals of Bank Voles and fleeting glances of nimble Stoats. Moth trapping here too is a delight; Garden Tiger, Large Emerald, Wood Tiger and Popular Hawk-Moth a few personal favourites though a myriad of pugs, rustics, waves and wainscots more often than not leave me bewildered, baffled and scrambling for the nearest field guide. These aside, time and time again the Birch groves deliver; ground beetles, bees, frogs, toads, bats, badgers and, of course, ticks all provide a veritable smorgasbord of natural delights. All be it slightly annoying ones in the case of the lowly tick and mighty Scottish Midge. Given my particular fondness for feathered things however, it is the avian life that inhabits such places that, above all else, keeps me coming back for more…
Long-Tailed Tit (juvenile), Coal Tit, Adder and Common Toad
It has always seemed to me that Birch woodlands, particularly those in Scotland, host a greater density of “common” species than other sites I frequently visit. Take Song and Mistle Thrush for example, back home, in Northumberland that is, I will maybe see 3-4 of each on a good day spent rummaging around in the woods. Up North however things are different, on one visit last year I recorded no less than 16 Song Thrush and 12 Mistle Thrush on a short walk through a secluded wood. I am not at all sure why this is but the abundance of familiar species is another factor that contributes to my love of such sites – more so when applied to other species such as Grey Wagtail, Woodcock, Siskin, Lesser Redpoll etc. Even better, in summer Birch woodlands (at least those I have visited) hold more summer migrants than you can shake a stick at! A recent count of 33 singing Willow Warbler was certainly a record for me. Redstart, Tree Pipit, Spotted Flycatcher and Cuckoo too, all species I do not see all too often appear to do well here; flycatchers in particular with no less than 14 noted during a half hour walk last summer. Birding in northern birch woods is truly one of my favourite pass times and that goes without mentioning the odd Black Grouse prone to popping up when least expected – a sight I will never tire of.
People sing the praises of Caledonian Pine forests almost every day but for me, it is Scotland’s Birch woods I hold closest to heart. Well worth a visit for anyone with a fondness for all things ecological.