Last Thursday, in a change to my normal manic morning routine, I left my other-half to get our three boys ready for school and nursery and headed off through the early Glasgow rush-hour to Glen Finglas for my first ever Ancient Tree Hunt. As a relatively new volunteer web-guide for VisitWoods, I was looking forward to learning more about what the ATH does and, most importantly, joining in.
We’d been advised to wear walking boots or wellies and waterproofs and to bring a packed lunch. I’d fitted in a spot of practise hunting the previous day as I turned my house upside-down looking for my walking boots. When I finally found them they were a size too small (my feet grew a size somewhere between son number one and son number three), so I had added a dash to the local sports shop to my preparations.
After a beautiful drive up to the Brig o’ Turk (with only one minor ‘detour’), I arrived at the quaintly named Little Drum car park and crossed over to the Lodge where the Glen Finglas team are based. Most of the staff and volunteers for the day had already assembled and, after a reviving cup of coffee and a chat, we were invited to hear a bit more about the project and what we would be doing that day.
The Glen Finglas Estate was bought by the Woodland Trust in 1996. As well as restructuring the management of the estate, the project team are currently mapping all the venerable and ancient trees to gain a better understanding of how the woodland has been used in the past. Much of the upper slopes of the three glens within the estate have already been recorded. The plan today was to record trees along the Finglas Water and hopefully show that the scattered clusters of ancient trees are part of one whole wood pasture.
After the introduction we were split into small teams, each with an experienced leader, and allocated different stretches of the river to record. Our team was to be led by Clair, the Senior Verifier for the Ancient Tree Hunt.
We set off in a convoy of 4x4s to traverse the bumpy rollercoastering track up to the middle of the estate. Even on a fairly dreich and drizzly day Glen Finglas is stunning. Steep slopes dotted with trees and strewn with huge boulders run down to the river winding its way through the glen.
Tabby, the Glen Finglas Estate Officer and our driver for the trip, pointed out the Luing cattle and explained that the estate was trialling different grazing over the three glens to see what worked best in woodland pasture management. A small flock of Canadian geese were swimming on the loch and what we thought were swallows skimmed and swooped over the grasses and heathers.
We arrived at the drop off point and squelched our way down the slope to our first tree. At this point it became clear that three of the four of us didn’t really have a clue what we were doing. We looked at the tree, in my case at least, fairly blankly. It wasn’t a beech, an oak, a hawthorn or a sycamore. I rummaged around in my rucksack for my handy Woodland Trust leaf swatch.
“It’s an Alder,” Clair stated. “Not very impressive in size but it may well be older than it looks. Okay, so once we’ve identified the species we need to record the tree form, anyone know what it is?”
I think it’s a pollard,” said Clair. “See, where the trunk has been split quite high up?”
Clair took us through the other details we needed to record as possible signs of an ancient tree – dead wood, hollowing, fungi, epiphytes, bore holes made by invertebrates and signs of bats. She explained to Rory how to record the GPS and he reeled off a number.
Sally, who was filling in the form, scribbled away furiously while I puzzled over Clair’s unfamiliar but seemingly straight-forward camera.
And we were off. We recorded coppiced and pollarded trees by the dozen, with a few maidens and multi-stems and one phoenix thrown in for good measure. The trees were mainly alders with the occasional birch and rowan. Trying to work out the history of each tree was intriguing. We found several instances where an original alder had been split apart by a rowan or birch which had taken root in the alder’s trunk. Other trees had taken on weird and wonderful shapes as they had toppled or grown entwined with another tree but somehow thrived. We recorded signs of woodpeckers and woodworm and discovered myriad different lichen, mosses and fungi.
On the bouncy ride back to the lodge for a final coffee and a round-up of the day’s work we spotted a tree clinging precariously to the steep hill-side and joked that we should head up to record it. But then again, we speculated, there was probably no need – it’ll be a maiden alder, alive and standing, M&L (moss and lichen), about 2.5 metre’s girth.
“It’s a rowan,” our driver Richard, Glen Finglas’s Ranger said, grinning. Apparently he walked by it on a daily basis.
“Ah,” one of us said, nodding sagely, “Then it probably used to be an alder and the rowan was originally an epiphyte that’s taken over.”