Staff blog: Harvesting hazel nuts near Quinag

Quinag conservation officer Romany Garnett reports on collecting a satisfying harvest of hazel nuts for the tree nursery

Romany garnett   hazel nuts at quinag lr detail

It is the season for nuts and berries as we found out in early October, when we set off with buckets and long poles to look for hazel nuts hanging high up in clusters.

We had gathered for the final Quinag guided walk of 2015. Our aim was to gather hazel nuts for the native tree nursery at Little Assynt - part of the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape project (of which the John Muir Trust is a partner). Trees grown at the nursery have localised provenance, so that the particular genetic variety here will be specially adapted to manage the harsh winds and wetness of the climate.

Looking for nuts hiding among the leaves feels a bit like treasure hunting; it is rewarding to find these smooth ivory shells encased in feathery bracts. They are the accumulation of the season’s growth and inside each nut is one seed or kernel and inside this is locked the secret of the hazel’s genetic past and promise for future generations.

Hazel trees are often described as an understorey shrub; this seems rather dismissive for the Celtic Tree of Wisdom. The Celts recognised the ancient magic of the tree and thought that nuts were supposed to give wisdom. Maybe this is a good excuse for eating more hazelnut chocolate spread!

This multi-stemmed tree has a unique habitat of high biodiversity value: it is one of the most versatile of woods with uses including hurdle making, baskets, furniture, coracles and of course firewood. The nuts are also an important food source for mice, voles, birds and other mammals and stashes of nuts sometimes appear in strange places where the little animals have hoarded them for later.

Some larger hazel stands that have the wetness offered by west coast oceanic climate are named the Atlantic hazel and are of global importance because of their richness of lichens, liverworts and mosses. Some of these woods are unique due to their lichen and bryophyte communities and are indicative of ancient woodland. The crustose lichens give a lovely mosaic effect on the trunk and certain types like graphis alboscripta are nationally rare and a Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) species.

Reaching up under the canopy of leaves for the nuts, with the sunshine flickering through the foliage, the vividness of greens was striking. After quietly moving from tree to tree, our buckets gradually filled up with nuts and our necks and arms grew tired.

The hazel is now preparing for its long winter sleep, the leaves are turning and the catkins are formed ready for next year. This means that, when the sap slowly rises again in the spring, the catkins are ready for pollination before the leaves come.

As we carried the buckets full of nuts back to the car, it was satisfying to think that our day’s work will result in lots of carefully tended seedlings coming up next year at the tree nursery.