Which animals would pop into your head, if you were asked to list the most iconic species of wildlife found in the Cairngorms National Park. Red deer? Golden eagles? Red squirrels? Pine marten perhaps? Or maybe it’s the charismatic capercaillie? It’s probably fair to assume that the tiny six-legged creatures that creep, crawl and flutter by might not be the first things that come to mind.
This is despite the fact that the Cairngorms is home to an amazing suite of insect life. Researchers at Buglife – The Invertebrate Conservation Trust – have been putting together a list of key sites around the country that are vital for conserving our rarest invertebrates. The initial analysis shows that the Cairngorms National Park is one of the most important areas for invertebrates in Scotland. This is because the Park supports a high diversity of insect species, including many rarities. Some of these species are unique to the National Park and conservation work taking place here is vital to maintain their status in the UK.
One example is the pine hoverfly. Due to intensification of forest management over the decades this is now an endangered species, so rare in fact that it is restricted to a single location in the Cairngorms National Park. It depends on the deadwood cycle – the process of trees (in this case big old granny pines) falling over or succumbing to fungal disease and decaying. The pine hoverfly’s larvae live in wet role holes created by this process – a very specific niche. Natural occurrences of these “rot holes” are nowadays few and far between because most pines in forestry are felled before they get to be old, knarled granny pines. To help save the pine hoverfly from extinction, a range of organisations in the park have been making artificial holes in tree stumps to give the pine hoverfly a home. It is hoped that in the future numbers of the hoverfly will increase to levels that allow it can survive on its own, and with more pine forest in the park being managed less intensively, natural rot holes should become common again.
Not all of the key invertebrates are insects; the fresh water pearl mussel, a bivalve mollusc, lives in cold water rivers and streams. Its life cycle depends upon salmon – the pearl mussel’s larvae actually live inside the gills of salmon (causing no harm to the fish) for the first year of their life. Pollution, climate change and poaching have all contributed to the huge decline of this species across the UK, the watercourses of the Cairngorms support internationally important populations of this species. The Pearls In Peril project has focused on improving the condition of watercourses to support this species, working with landowners and engaging local communities to develop a wider understanding of the plight of this very special mollusc.
Butterflies are a harbinger of summer and sunshine. Their night-time counterparts – the moths – often have a reputation for being dull and boring. However, if you were to see the diversity of moths that live in Scotland, you would be surprised at how they rival the butterflies for colour, shape and lifestyle. In fact, three moth species which are almost entirely restricted to the Cairngorms in the UK are all day-flying species. And thanks to the Victorians, they all have fantastic names: Kentish glory, dark bordered beauty, and small dark yellow underwing. The Kentish glory (once known as far south as Kent, hence its name) is a big, fluffy, chestnut coloured moth and the males have strikingly large antennae to “sniff” out the females which “call” to the males using special sexy pheromones. The dark bordered beauty is a much daintier creature, but none the less beautiful, displaying autumnal oranges and yellows on its wings. Its caterpillars depend on aspen and it has a reputation for being elusive –only small numbers of adults are usually seen, making conservation work for this species very challenging. The small dark yellow underwing lives on heathland where its foodplant bearberry grows. It loves to fly in sunshine and zips across the heather at incredible speed – the best way to find it is when it stops for a breather on a fence post or tree trunk on an overcast day.
The Cairngorms acts as a vital refuge for many of insects that are in some cases found nowhere else in Scotland, and even the UK. The range of species is huge and here are just a few examples of the diversity of amazing invertebrates that call the Cairngorms their home. They are every bit as exciting, and beautiful, as our more familiar furry and feathered friends.
The Cairngorms Nature BIG Weekend 12-14 May is a celebration of the fantastic natural heritage of the Cairngorms National Park. With over 50 activities taking place across the Cairngorms National Park there will be something for everyone, from families to the more seasoned nature lover.
We have a number of events where you can discover and explore things that creep, crawl, flutter and buzz, including a ‘Minibeast safari’ with TV naturalist Nick Baker!
You can see the whole programme and book places at www.cairngorms.co.uk/big-weekend