Staff blog: The sap is rising at Quinag

Quinag conservation officer Romany Garnett reports on signs of the earth stirring after a long winter sleep

Fran lockhart primroses on the lower slopes of quinag detail

Spring is definitely on the way now although Quinag is still cloaked in varying degrees of brown and snow clings to the corries. It feels like spring is taking a long while to come this year. Hailstones and snowflakes still scatter across the ground reminding us not to take good weather for granted yet. However the birch has lost its purple hue and the buds are opening at last: tiny leaves are unfolding. The buds are slow to open though and the oak and aspen still appear to be deep in their winter sleep. The trees in these parts stand small but distinctive with bare branches that are gnarled and twisted; contorted by the coastal gales.

Certain pockets of ground around the foothills of the mountain are further on and the vibrant splash of the purple dog violet against the delicate yellow of primroses is a feast for the eyes. On a guided walk recently the group reached the highest summit of Quinag, Sail Gharbh, and we ate our sandwiches gazing down at the huge drop of land below, all brown and wintery. One member of the party saw a mountain hare scurry quickly under a boulder. Its coat was already changing from the white winter one to a mottled brown. Respect must be given to an animal able to survive in such a harsh environment. This creature lives in sub-zero temperatures and extreme winds. How do they survive? Perhaps they nibble the leaves of the crowberry or the coarse wind-clipped grass on the mountain. There is little depth of soil on the summit.

Deer are not often seen at the summit – there’s nothing much for them up here and they cannot shelter under a boulder like the hare. The hinds prefer the remoter glen away from the footpath where they can calve undisturbed. The stags, generally bolder, come down to the roadside in the evenings to eat the richer grass on the verges. It is a hard time of year for herbivores. Having survived the long winter they are now at their poorest and the new flush of grass is slow to come.

On 28 April I heard the first cuckoo singing robustly despite the long journey to get here. And now the liquid cascading song of the willow warbler fills the woodland air. The birds know that it is spring even if the snow keeps falling. The other day I helped to take a local school group into Culag Woods to look for signs of spring and the effects of browsing on the trees locally. They were encouraged to spot signs that animals were present in the woods. We found dung and tracks and looked at browsing damage on saplings. We looked at the fresh leaves starting to uncurl from their comfy buds. As the children reached the plateau, there stood five hinds peacefully grazing. Deer and children stood in hushed awe, neither moving, both equally surprised. The deer stared back for what seemed like a long time before darting away for cover: it was a beautiful moment.

The youngsters in a new Wildlife Watch group in Lochinver were taken out exploring recently and listened to the sound of sap moving up inside a birch tree. With a stethoscope placed on the trunk they took turns to hear the faint rustling sound of the sap rising through the tree again. It was strangely exciting. This elixir will soon fill the branches with energy and life. We could hear inside there was lots going on although the tree itself was showing hardly any signs of life. It is heartening to know that the earth is stirring after the long winter dormancy.