A late feeding frenzy at Craigellachie

Craigellachie National Nature Reserve is easily glimpsed from the A9, but as it sits on the other side of the road to Aviemore it can be overlooked. More’s the pity as it is one of our finest nature reserves, as Dominic Shann from our Media Team recently discovered on a family day out.

I’ll be honest – we’d come to see frogs. Time your visit to Craigellachie NNR right and you’ll witness the spectacle of thousands of newly metamorphosed frogs in, on and leaping around the lochans and wetter parts of the reserve.

Common frogs, SNH/Lorne Gill

Common frogs, SNH/Lorne Gill

Tucked behind the A9 at Aviemore, Craigellachie is not the quietest or most remote NNR you can visit – you’ll need to walk under the A9 to access the reserve. But with trails to suit all abilities, it’s a conveniently situated haven for locals and Aviemore’s countless visitors. Besides, you very soon forget the fading drone of traffic and become absorbed by the world around you.

Craigellachie NNR

No frog chorus though this time, not a frog to be seen, and it was soon apparent why. There was a late feeding frenzy going on!

The cold weather earlier in the year seems to have delayed the frogs’ appearance.

Our disappointment was very short lived. I was quickly relieved of my phone and for once I didn’t mind, although I would prefer to freely hand it over than to be so deftly pickpocketed. We learned about the geology and wildlife around us using ‘Mobitour’, the reserve’s phone information facility: simply call the number at certain spots along the trail and enter the code for your location. And it’s free (if you have a minutes-inclusive phone deal).

The site’s damp and sheltered conditions have favoured birch-dominated woodland and the reserve’s trails wind around its lochans and through one of the largest remaining birch woodlands in Strathspey. As the ‘Woodland Trail’ ascends, dramatic views of the Cairngorm plateau can be seen through the thinning trees.

S1030034Habitats found on the reserve are incredibly varied for such a small area, providing homes for a wide range of species. On the hill top there are areas of dry heath with bearberry, wet heath and blanket bog. Within the woodland there are open glades, wet flushes and freshwater habitats.

S1030017The reserve gets its name from ‘Creag Eileachaidh’, an imposing crag which provides a safe nesting place for breeding peregrines – if you’re lucky you might catch sight of one soaring above your head. There are about 50 bird species which you could spot on the reserve, including lesser redpoll, wood warbler, spotted flycatcher, tree pipit and occasionally crossbills in the woodland.

Many species of moth thrive on the reserve including the rare Kentish glory, the Rannoch sprawler, the netted mountain moth and the angle-striped sallow. Woodland butterflies you might spot include the orange tip, the Scotch argus and the white pearl bordered fritillary. Also keep an eye out for dragonflies and damselflies hawking around the lochans and wet woodlands.

Orange tip, SNH/Lorne Gill

Orange tip, SNH/Lorne Gill

As well as the aforementioned common frogs, you might also see common toads and palmate newts hanging around wetter areas, whilst Loch Puladdern and the old reservoir contain brown trout, minnows and the rare three-spined stickleback.

More than 385 types of flowering plants have been recorded on the reserve, including nationally scarce dwarf birch, serrated wintergreen and bog hair-grass. At least 22 species of lichens occur on the reserve; and 71 species of fungi have been recorded, many of which are specifically associated with birch.

Dwarf birch, SNH/Lorne Gill

Dwarf birch, SNH/Lorne Gill

Red deer are the reserve’s largest mammals, sometimes seen on high ground above the trees, or heard roaring in the autumn. Roe deer may also be glimpsed in more open areas, feeding on shrubs and grassy lawns. Pine marten are seen occasionally and on summer evenings pipistrelle bats fly amongst the birch in pursuit of moths and midges.

Craigellachie has been a National Nature Reserve since 1960 and it was designated a Site of Scientific Special Interest (SSSI) a year later. Since then research into geology, soils, plants and animals has improved our understanding of the reserve’s ecology.

A main focus of our conservation management on the reserve has been to enhance the semi-natural woodland by encouraging natural regeneration of a range of native trees. Heavy grazing had suppressed much of the natural regeneration and so cattle were removed from the reserve in 1960 and in 1982 around 300 wintering sheep were removed from the NNR.

Construction of the A9 in the 1980’s cut off the reserve and the only way to get to it was by crossing a busy road. With completion of the underpass, which provides the only safe access to the NNR, visitor numbers have increased to around 9,000 a year. The Craigellachie underpass can be reached from the Aviemore Highland Resort car park or via a way-marked path from the Youth Hostel.

We’ll be paying another visit soon, to see if we can catch sight of the frogs.

For more info visit the NNR website .

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