A day in the life of a bryologist. What would that be like? What does someone interested in mosses and liverworts get up to all day? Last summer I was lucky enough to find out, and it wasn’t what you might expect. Whatever your expectations are…
I spent a few days on the Isle of Eigg with a group from the British Bryological Society (BBS), an annual excursion they organise each year to varying places in the UK. Eigg is one of the Small Isles off the west coast of Scotland, the other three Small Isles being Rum, Muck and Canna. Very few bryologists have ever been to Eigg, so it was an exciting prospect to survey the island and perhaps discover some lesser known secrets of its better known, high-quality habitats.
Eighteen members of the BBS gathered on the pier at Mallaig and caught the CalMac ferry to Eigg. Upon disembarking we loaded our baggage onto a trailer, which would be driven to our accommodation. Baggage not only consisted of the usual clothing, bathroom bags, boots, wellies and waterproofs, but piles of food, heaps of microscopes and other survey gear, and, I noted, one or two bottles of single malt whisky. The trailer was filled, and then the heavens opened, tropical style, in a spectacular welcoming deluge, soaking everyone to the skin.
I looked for dismay in the eyes of the bryologists but these wet conditions are ideal for mosses and liverworts. The woodland habitats on Eigg, like much of the west coast of Scotland, are called temperate rainforest, such is the prodigious rainfall that descends from the skies in these parts. But I saw no dismay. Just resigned good humour. This was clearly a bunch of well-travelled, experienced bryologists who were very used to working in these conditions. They had come from near and far, too. Jo is a seaweed specialist working at the Natural History Museum, London, but also fascinated by bryophytes; Mark is a computer programmer from Devon; Liz a researcher from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh; Sean a Physics lecturer from Oxfordshire. They’re a diverse bunch, be it age, gender, background or personality types. There’s obviously no such thing as a stereotypical bryologist.
You’re not allowed to take a car onto the island – one of the blissful idiosyncrasies of this wonderful place. So we followed the trailer up the track on foot for a couple of kilometres to our accommodation.
Each day we’d wake up in the Glebe Barn hostel, and visit a particular part of the island, surveying a range of habitat types and recording what we found in long lists.
Mosses and liverworts often like little hidden niches, and the places you visit when looking for them are off the beaten track. If a track goes over a summit, you can bet we’d traverse around the side of the hill, scrambling over rough vegetation and boulders. We ended up in places where people don’t normally venture, and probably quite a few places where no one has set foot for a very long time.
We climbed to obscure hillside crags, picked our way through boulder fields below the immense and imposing Sgurr of Eigg, crossed bizarre cobbled rock ridges of the western hills, ventured into caves, and waded up cascading burns. Perhaps the most exciting moment was scrambling up the deep cleft of a ravine high up on the cliffs overlooking Cleadale in the north of the island. Thankfully, it hadn’t rained the day before we visited – the next day it would be impossible to approach the ravine due to the amount of water coming down it.
Who would have thought that looking for bryophytes would be such an adventure: free-scrambling across the landscape. A true explore, the kind where you don’t quite know what to expect, or what you might find.
Evenings back at the Glebe Barn hostel were spent resting aching limbs, eating together, discussing difficult specimens under the microscopes and, yes, a comforting sip or two of the single malts to help whisk away the aches and pains.
Not surprisingly, the group found Eigg to be very rich in mosses and liverworts: some 375 species were found, of which 143 were new records for the island, including some important and rare species.
At the end of the trip, the bryologists reluctantly departed to the mainland and dispersed to various parts of the UK and Europe. The data they recorded, and our increased understanding of this less well known group of plants in a small corner of Scotland, is the legacy of their few days spent on this wonderful island.
Stan Phillips is an SNH Area Officer in South West Argyll with a keen interest in bryophytes.
All images by Stan Phillips.