When is a tree not a tree?

We return to the spectacular RSPB Glenborrodale


When we wrote about RSPB’s work in managing and conserving Scotland’s rainforests back at the end of last year, we knew we’d need to make the trip to see this magical place for ourselves.

I reach the Ardnamurchan peninsula by ferry, setting off from the famous harbourfront at Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, straight out into the Sound of Mull, toward the deep green hills directly across the water. It’s a beautiful 35 minutes to the tiny port at Kilchoan, and the handful of cars that fit on the ferry deck roll up and off onto a narrow, winding road. 

Even aside from its globally important temperate rainforests, Ardnamurchan’s landscape is truly special. White sandy beaches rise up into giant fists of gneiss rock, which in turn overlook lush green valleys of ancient oak, crossed by ribbons of winding road, perfect for cyclists. With the sea a prominent presence wherever you go, it’s easy to forget you’re still on the mainland.

I meet with RSPB ranger Izzy Baker in RSPB Glenborrodale’s tiny gravel car park, from which we head straight up into the forest, via a narrow, stony, root-strewn path. It almost instantly feels like we’re deep in ancient woodland. As we walk, Izzy quietly points out individual calls from the cacophony of birdsong: a rare wood warbler, in from Africa to breed among the trees here, and the high-pitched alarm-clock trill of a grasshopper warbler. We even spot a woodpecker bringing grubs to its young, whose tiny beaks poke out from a hole in a handy rotten telegraph pole (hat-tip to Nikon, for the loan of a pair of excellent Monarch M7 binoculars).

As Izzy explains though, the RSPB is – somewhat counter-intuitively – about much more than just the birds. “The birds are quite good flagship species,” she says. “They're a good indicator that an ecosystem is functioning properly – or not – but they're also something that people can relate to, that they can see and identify. 

RSPB ranger Izzy

“We look at the whole picture though, from the plants and lichen to the invertebrates and everything that makes this specific ecosystem unique. For example, we have one very rare butterfly here, the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, whose lifecycle is dependent on the violet plant, because the caterpillar feeds on its leaves. Then we have the Chequered Skipper, which is only found in Scotland, within a roughly 30-mile radius of Fort William.

“Then you can look at the trees and the rocks. There are mosses and lichen everywhere, hundreds of distinct species. Look at the bark, and you’ll see it’s never just bark. On some of these oaks, you can see where the moss itself is so deep that it’s providing a substrate for ferns to grow where they never would normally. Once you start noticing these things, you realise a tree is never just a tree.”

This incredibly delicate balance needs to be maintained by organisations like RSPB. Since these lands had previously been managed for farming and charcoal production, left entirely to their own devices, the ecosystem would quickly collapse.

As if on cue, a flash of amber darts across our view and, before it’s even settled on a blade of grass a few metres down the trail, Izzy has broken off her train of thought and rapidly whispers “Chequered Skipper”. This incredibly rare butterfly poses for me, allowing me to get close enough for a frame-filling photo, and for a moment I feel like David Attenborough. “I brought a group up here last week, and for some reason the butterflies really liked one lady’s boots. Chequered Skippers just kept landing on her,” Izzy tells me, somewhat bursting my bubble.

The top of the hill breaks out into a small open plateau, from which we can look over the canopy of oaks, across Loch Sunart, and onto the verdant slopes of the Morven peninsula beyond. Izzy explains to me that RSPB is currently in the process of acquiring a much larger estate on the peninsula, and her enthusiasm for the project is infectious.

“It's so cool, we don't know what's there really yet. We've not done any survey work, so we can't wait to get the handover and then we can explore. It’s different to Glenborrodale; there’s a rough track where we can take a pickup, but it’s not really accessible to the general public. It’s somewhere we can focus more on the management of the habitat than maintaining footpaths and stuff. That’s obviously important too, but it takes time and money.”

It surprises me to learn that RSPB actually owns Glenborrodale, and other reserves like it up and down the country. Sometimes it’s acquired as part of a charitable legacy, as is the case here, and elsewhere an estate will be bought outright. What all of these places have in common is their ecological importance.

As we near the end of the walk, I remark that the experience has changed the way I’ll experience forests in future, as I’ll always be wondering about particular bird calls or strange plants that I encounter.

“That’s the thing, for me,” she agrees. “There are so many levels on which you can enjoy a place like this. Of course, you can just visit and appreciate its beauty at face value – it is beautiful. But then once you learn a little, that adds a level, and you begin to realise how much you don’t know. We had a visit from a bryologist [an expert in moss and lichen] recently, and I just wanted him to download all his knowledge. That’s my current obsession really.”

I leave Glenborrodale with a little more knowledge but, as Izzy says, a tantalising glimpse of a hidden world, and a resolve to learn more. This is a magical place, and I find myself grateful for people like Izzy, whose obsessions keep Glenborrodale and Scotland’s other unique, irreplicable habitats safe for the rest of us.

A rainforest, you say?

While we tend only to think of tropical rainforests, the world’s temperate zones are also dotted with rainforests of their own, and Scotland is fortunate enough to have several spectacular examples. These forests are characterised by their huge biodiversity, heavy rainfall and ‘hyperoceanicity’ – meaning a very small difference in temperature between the warmest and coldest months of the year. You’re unlikely to meet any orangutan, but Scotland’s rainforests nonetheless provide globally unique ecosystems, and host species that only exist in these specific habitats.

Up close and personal

To get the most from any wildlife adventure, we wholeheartedly recommend a decent pair of binos. Nikon's Monarch M7+ 8x30 binoculars are superb for the task, with an extra wide apparent field of vision through to edges of the lenses and outstanding optics to make sure you never miss a thing.

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