Photography by Angela Mercer
With the Wild Lochaber Festival running from the 18th to the 25th May, it’s a great time to visit the area. Jon Mercer from Glenloy Lodge, gives an insight.
As the weary walker pauses to regain his breath and admire the stunning views from the summit of Britainâ€™s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, a cheeky snow bunting, resplendent in its black and white breeding plumage, flutters down to beg for crumbs. From the forbidding North Face cliffs comes the call of a ring ouzel, whilst circling to the south, still high above the tops of the Mamores, a golden eagle searches for prey. On his way up, had the walker searched diligently within metres of the uncompromisingly rocky path, he may well have found one of Britainâ€™s rarest plants, the aptly named Highland Saxifrage. Scanning the vista his eyes pass over a little-visited hill near Glenfinnan, where another alpine, Diapensia, flowers at its only British site. Eyeing the rocky wilderness of Ardnamurchan at the most westerly point of the British Mainland he might well be looking at the last stronghold of the truly pure wildcat. Further north, black-throated divers call mournfully on distant Loch Morar, Britainâ€™s deepest freshwater body, standing sentinel to Knoydart, the largest tract of land inaccessible by public road. Further out to the coast, where the sea sparkles around the Inner Hebrides, it is rumoured that the basking shark, the second-largest fish in the world, is using the fertile waters around the Small Isles as a breeding ground. On the volcanic remnants of distant Rum over a 100,000 pairs of Manx Shearwaters have chicks safely tucked up in burrows, awaiting nightfall.
Lochaber brands itself as the Outdoor Capital of the UK, and is well known for activity sports such as climbing, hill walking, kayaking, canyonning, mountain biking and skiing. It is an area of iconic landscapes and geological superlatives. The whole of Lochaber has been internationally recognised as a Geopark for the importance of its geology, and its role in the evolution of our understanding of how the landscape has been formed. The coast is deeply sculpted by fjords and has a disproportionately long shore line, replete with rocky islands, white sand beaches, maritime heath, cliffs and dunes. Other internationally known landmarks include Glencoe, Glen Etive, the Glenfinnan Monument and viaduct at the head of Loch Shiel, the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy, the Atlantic Oakwoods of Loch Sunart and the western end of the Great Glen and Caledonian Canal. In an area of over 5180 square kilometres there are less than 20,000 inhabitants. This of course, leaves plenty of room for wildlife, and it is the nature of Lochaber that has, as by our fictional walker, often been overlooked. With a wide range of habitats from summit to the sea the wildlife of Lochaber remains to this day one of Europeâ€™s best kept secrets.
Hitting the peaks
For the energetic the mountain tops have a good range of alpine plants, with nesting ptarmigan, golden plover and ring ouzel, plus even a few dotterel. The mountain ringlet butterfly can be found on the Nevis Range and at Creag Meagidh, where arctic charr still thrive in Corrie Lochan. The vast areas of upland heath contain a substantial area of blanket bog, with rare dragonflies such as azure hawker, three species of insectivorous sundew and two of butterwort. Cuckoos call continuously across the moors in late spring, and the roaring of red deer fills the glens in the autumn. Further vast tracts of low-lying peat bog are to be found around the southern part of Loch Shiel and Kentra in Moidart. Hen harriers patrol here, whilst ospreys and white-tailed eagle fish in the adjacent loch. Other notable breeding birds of the remote lochs include both black-throated and red-throated diver, and to the north, common scoter. The â€˜Atlantic rainforest thrives in the mild, â€˜softâ€™ maritime climate, and the oakwoods droop with rare mosses, lichens and ferns. This is the home of the pine marten, here reaching perhaps its highest density in Western Europe.
The chequered skipper, a pretty but pugnacious, little butterfly of dappled woodland edge, is only found within 40km of Fort William in the UK. Remnants of stately Caledonian pine wood, with a thick understorey of blueberry and heather are used by black grouse and red squirrels. Rich areas of wild flower meadow still exist, with a profusion of orchids, in undisturbed upland areas, on croft land, along the coastal fringes and particularly on roadside verges. Rivers support a healthy population of wild salmon, whilst less well-known creatures such as lamprey and freshwater pearl-mussel have a home here. The coast is noted for some specialist habitats such as maerl beds (the northern â€™coralâ€™, which is actually a calcified seaweed), tidal rapids such as the Corran and Leven Narrows, and shell-sand beaches, particularly on the Small Isles. These coastal waters are frequented by a very healthy population of otters, which can be seen at any time of day, tide and patience permitting. The rich upswelling of waters around the Inner Hebrides attracts good numbers of minke whales and common dolphins in summer, and there are resident populations of both bottlenose dolphins and orcas. Add to this the giant filter-feeding basking shark and huge numbers of seabirds, including shearwaters, gannets, skuas and auks, and the prospect of a boat trip becomes mouth-wateringly enticing.
All parts of Lochaber that can be reached by road can be accessed within a couple of hours drive from Fort William. A downloadable map on the OCUK website suggests places to visit to see wildlife. This is to be supplemented in 2013 by a series of Wild Lochaber Trails. These guides will be in leaflet form and also downloadable, and will provide a series of much more detailed itineraries for both the dedicated nature watcher and casual visitor to explore. There is plenty of scope to find the OCUKâ€™s big five â€“ cetaceans, eagles, red deer, otter and pine martens, but take the time to enjoy the landscape, and enjoy the varied wildlife, and the variety of habitats.
The opportunities for structured or organised wildlife watching in the area are increasing. In 2012 the inaugural Wild Lochaber Festival was held with over 35 wildlife watching events featured in the programme. Forestry Commission Scotland is an important manager of local wildlife (and visiting people). Their wildlife hide at Garbh Eilean on Loch Sunart overlooks a seal colony and heronry and provides a good chance of seeing otters. Red squirrels can be watched from behind the viewing wall at the FCS car park in Glen Righ. Scottish Natural Heritage maintain a good series of all-ability access on National Nature Reserves at Ariundle Oakwoods and Creag Meagidh, as well as managing Glen Roy and the Isle of Rum. The Island of Canna, with its puffin colonies, rabbits and eagles, is owned by the National Trust for Scotland. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has a woodland reserve at Glenborrodale, whilst the Scottish Wildlife Trust jointly manages reserves on the Island of Eigg with the island community, at the Rahoy Hills with Ardtornish Estate and Doire Donn with the Conaglen Estate.
A number of bed and breakfast establishments, such as Glenloy Lodge, attract visiting pine martens and a wealth of birds, including crossbill. All-inclusive wildlife holidays covering the whole of Lochaber are offered by Glenloy Wildlife, whilst a number of operators from outside the region spend time here. Wild West and various estates offer red deer safaris and photography, whilst in Ardnamurchan it is possible to join Wild Highland Tours on an evening or night-time safari looking for the elusive wildcat. There is a natural history centre, Nadurra, with underwater cameras and a heronry cam, also on the peninsula. Eagle Watch Cruises at Glenfinnan takes people along Loch Shiel in search of both golden and sea eagles. A number of other boat trips operate along the coast, offering whale watching opportunities. Both the Sheerwater from Arisaig Marine and Ardnamurchan Charters out of Laga Bay specialise in wildlife watching trips, whilst much can also be seen from the ferries. As well as the regular journeys to the Small Isles and Skye from Mallaig, it is possible to join the Caledonian MacBrayne ferries for a circular day trip around the islands. The Bruce Watt ferry from Mallaig to Knoydart takes a scenic return route along Loch Nevis.
Whether taking an organised trip or simply keeping an eye out for what is around, the visitor will certainly see something. As this is a sparsely populated region with a limited history of wildlife recording, sightings are of genuine interest and should be recorded. These could either be sent to the Lochaber Natural History Society or to the Highland Biological Recording Group. Given the size and scale of the region, it will be a long while before we have anything like a comprehensive picture of the animals and plants in Lochaber and where exactly they may be found. In the meantime, Lochaber remains something of a secret, but one that certainly deserves to be shared.