Staff blog: Harvesting hazel nuts

Quinag conservation officer Romany Garnett and volunteers collect seed for a native tree nursery

Denis mollison nutgathering838 lr detail

The final guided walk of the year took place in early October amid rain showers and grey clouds. As usual for the season it was a nut collecting walk to harvest hazel nuts for the Coigach & Assynt Living Landscape partnership’s Little Assynt Tree Nursery. They grow thousands of seedlings every year from locally sourced trees. More hands really help with picking and Nick the tree nursery manager explains that the nuts had ripened early this year.

Picking hazelnuts in the rain is much more fun than it sounds and I am surprised how satisfying it is. Shades of leaf vary from vivid green to auburn and deep brown. The leaves’ pointed tips drip onto us and down our sleeves. The moisture suits a variety of lichens some of which are unique to hazel woods. The large leafy tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) and the Lobaria family of lichen are common on the west coast of Scotland but in drier regions are quite rare.

The production of nuts is interesting. Hazels are monoecious which means male and female flowers are on the same tree. The young male catkins form in the autumn before the sap leaves the tree so that they are ready for peak pollination which is between January and March. The female flowers have very small buds that have red styles. A hazel tree cannot self-fertilise due to a built in self-incompatibility between identical genes. Hazels are pollinated by the wind and there must be a compatible polliniser within wind-blown distance. Once pollinated the female flower develops fruits over the summer and these slowly mature into woody shells and hard nuts.

The storm has dislodged many nuts from their cases, and leaves are strewn underfoot on the thick mossy carpet. The remaining nuts hang poised ready to roll out of their bracts.

This year is a bumper crop for nuts (often called a ‘mast’ year). This happens every now and again and is not necessarily to do with the weather. It seems many nut bearing trees often have years of rest when they are less productive.

After over four hours underneath hazels gathering nuts, our combined picking amounts to quite a large haul. I come away dripping wet and slightly spellbound by these beautiful trees.

Denis Mollison - nut gathering 2

Photographs by Denis Mollison

Find out more about the Little Assynt Tree Nursery.