Edrachillis and Quinag from the summit of Beinn Leoid.
The old county of Sutherland is composed of 13 huge parishes and these form the basis for the division of the old county into the two vice-counties VC107 (East Sutherland) and our county, VC108 (West Sutherland) The five parishes along the north and west coasts form VC108 and it may be that it would be more logical to call the two counties North and South rather than West and East! The boundary with VC107 is very convoluted, in more than one place it is possible to walk due west into East Sutherland. VC108 is also a very large county some 90km east-west and 70km north-south, from the River Kirkaig and the Cromalt Hills in the south-west, north to Cape Wrath and east to Strath Halladale; essentially, it is the north-west corner of Scotland.
Given such a landscape it is not surprising that most of the land is of low agricultural value and crofting agriculture is restricted to more favoured areas around the coast and in a limited way to the areas where the limestone outcrops. In the past, much of the ground was used as sheep-walk and then for stalking and vast tracts were regularly burnt and this is still true of some ground, like the Westminster estate. However, large tracts are now owned by local communities or by landowners who are more concerned with regeneration of the habitat than “sport”. The nature of the terrain and the distance from processing has meant that there has only been a limited interest from the forestry industry so conifer plantations are few and far between in the west but more frequent in the east, including the regrettable ‘tax break’ plantations in the Flow Country. In fact, woodland in general is a scarce commodity in VC108 and is usually associated with steep watercourses or craggy areas less accessible to the deer. Although there are some oak woodlands in the west the predominant tree is downy birch with frequent rowan and hazel, often on crofting ground, and a scattering of aspen, ash and wych elm where the rocks are richer. In some places there are now deer-fenced areas hoping for natural regeneration and larger plots where a mix of trees have been planted with varying degrees of success. The exclusion by fencing of grazing animals, mostly red deer, is seen as necessary to allow the trees to grow but is bad news for the bryophytes as the heath becomes very leggy and overwhelms lower rocks – but it is probably better than extensive muir-burn! A much better policy would be to drastically reduce deer numbers but this is not popular with some landowners.
It is often quite wet
West Sutherland has an oceanic climate which essentially means cool, wet winters and, yes, cool wet summers. The prevailing winds come from the west, from the sea, laden with moisture and so the clouds are blown onto the steep-sided mountains, a confrontation that produces high rainfall figures. So, the whole of the vice-county is wet but there a lot of variation from west to east. At the heads of the western sea lochs and up in the bigger hills the annual rainfall will exceed 3000mm, but further east along the north coast the figure will be much less. For the oceanic bryophytes and the remnants of the temperate rain forest in which many of them grow, it is not the total rainfall figure that is important, it is the number of wet days (more than 1mm of rain) that is critical and a lot of the west has more than 220 wet days per year. The proximity of the warm sea to the west means that, at sea level, frosts are uncommon and persistent snow cover is rare, again conditions that favour our oceanic bryophytes. Some of the mountains, particularly Conival and Ben Hope may retain snow patches for longer periods.
West Sutherland is one of the least populated parts of Europe with a total population of around 3,500, much less than a small town in the Central Belt. Almost all of this population is scattered round the coast with the largest centre being Lochinver with other small settlements at Kinlochbervie, Durness, Tongue and Bettyhill and the rest in crofting townships. The roads are few and far between, mostly south to north, running up the big straths, the exception being the route along the north coast, and most are single track. The coastal roads in the west and north have been blighted by the invention of the “North Coast 500” piling more traffic onto roads that are not suitable; beware the lumbering motor-home and the driver who does not realise the purpose of passing places. There are large areas with no road access, especially the area between the Laxford Bridge – Loch More road and Loch Eriboll and also from Kinlochbervie to Cape Wrath; botanising in these areas is challenging.
Anastrophyllum alpinum in the centre with A. donnianum below
There have been no resident bryologists in the vice-county so all the records are from visitors and the remoteness has meant that these have been few and far between until quite recently. There are early records from 1767 from collections made by James Robertson and there may be more in the Greville herbarium but the real opening up of the bryophyte flora came in 1899 with the visit of by the noted English bryologists H.N. Dixon, W.E. Nicholson and E.S. Salmon. They “traversed the country from Lairg to Altnaharra, whence Ben Clibreck and Ben Hope were ascended, then went on by Tongue and Erriboll to Durness, exploring from this centre, Smoo Cave, Cape Wrath and the Far-out Head (sic)”. During the 1899 visit, as Nicholson remarks, “the Hepatics were left severely alone” and it was not until 1921 than he returned to remedy this omission, this time in the company of another celebrated bryologist, H.H. Knight. The most important single discovery of this trip was undoubtedly that of Anastrophyllum joergensenii sensu lato, new to the British Isles, on Beinn an Fhurain in Assynt; the plant they found is in fact, A. alpinum, distinct from A. joergensenii but the latter does occur elsewhere in the county.
Myurium hochstetteri, Sheigra
There were sporadic visits by other noted bryologists, particularly J B Duncan and Ted Wallace each adding new species for the area and from 1950 onward Alan Crundwell made a number of visits spanning some 40 years. The BBS visited Ullapool in 1960 and paid some visits to the Inchnadamph area and Derek Ratcliffe made his inevitable contributions in the late 1950s and 1960s, the most interesting of which was Myurium hochstetteri on the Stoer peninsula in Assynt. Three visits by John Birks produced a large number of records and Jean Paton visited during the same period and, a bit later on, David Long and David Chamberlain made additions to the list. In 1978 the two distinguished American bryologists WB Schofield and RM Schuster found Barbilophozia kunzeana in a mire above the crags at Inchnadamph, still the only Sutherland record. Ben Averis visited many of the woodlands in the county as part of his huge survey of temperate rain-forest bryophytes, mostly in the late 1980s but with subsequent visits in later years, producing thousands of new records. In his massive study of the West Sutherland vegetation, Chris Ferreira made a number of bryophyte records, particularly of Sphagna in the east of the county but these are still buried in SNH files. The BBS visited Lochinver in 1992, a meeting organised by the current recorder who has visited the area regularly since then, initially concentrating on the parish of Assynt, producing the bryophyte section in the Flora of Assynt but ranging more widely in the vice county since then.
After a long journey north, most visitors tend to go to the accessible, well-known sites so we have a vast number of records from the limestone at Inchnadamph and the coast at Invernaver but very few for Cape Wrath! Assynt is quite well recorded as a result of the Flora but even here there are some gaps and the montane flora has not been well-surveyed. Elsewhere there are large gaps at a tetrad level, especially in the east where, it has to be said, much of the ground is rather dull. There is a lot still to be done if you are prepared to stray from the beaten paths – and please send me the records!