Pottering about in the Crathes woods one November day in 2013 I came upon an old larch tree. Always happy to make the acquaintance of an interesting tree I took a photograph and noticed the fungus growing at the base of the tree and nearby. Although the fungus on the ground looked like a cow pat I knew it was growing from the roots of the tree and likely to be rotting the heart wood. I wasn’t unduly concerned because trees can take many years to die. But two months later when I returned that way I found that the larch had blown over in the winter gales.
Some years before I had been emotionally attached to a large beech in the Torphins Wood and had similarly thought that the tree would be around for many years. A fungus, although different from the one attacking the larch tree, was also eating away at the heart wood; limbs had been breaking off the beech for some time. When, in late 2011 a very large branch fell the estate decided that the tree was a hazard to walkers and it was cut down.
By the time I next passed by, at the beginning of January, the greater part of the wood had been cut and lay in the field prior to removal. The debris was left to rot. In time, other trees began to thrive as they took advantage of the light. Young beech saplings sprouted amongst the debris.
There are many wood-rotting fungi, amongst them the honey fungus group, the hoof fungus and the birch polypores all common in Crathes and Torphins. We may sometimes curse them, but they are essential for the health of a wood. Without the removal of old trees there can be no renewal; without rotting wood there will be fewer beetles and other insects, fewer birds, badgers and who knows what.
But it’s not all about rot. The mushrooms and toadstools we see are just the fruiting bodies of a large network of a thread-like mycelium which penetrates the soil and can stretch for miles. Many of these mycelia entangle with the roots of trees and other plants and help to move minerals and other nutrients from the soil into the plant. These are called mycorrhizal fungi. So when I think of any wood I need to imagine the vast unseen network of mycorrhizal fungi without which there would be no wood. I ponder on whether the mycelia from the wood pass across the field and into my garden. The silver birch that thrive and seed so freely in my garden must have their own attendant fungi but how far the fungi stretch I can’t tell. The following photographs are just a few of the fungi that I have seen at Crathes and in Torphins. There are thousands of different fungi in UK and I can guess at some of the names but might be mistaken, so I’ll leave them largely unnamed.
One of my Christmas books was about fungi; reading it has expanded my world. Mycorrhizal fungi – sometimes referred to as the ‘Wood Wide Web’ – are not just about trees. Apparently the fungi that accompany our tomatoes can affect the sweetness; the fungi that accompany fennel plants can alter the aromatic oil quality; even the flavour of the loaf of bread we eat is dependent on the types of fungi that entangle with the roots of the wheat.
And then there are the lichens. I knew that they are the result of a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga: the alga photosynthesises and makes the sugars needed for sustenance, and the fungus, with its tough skin, provides shelter. Well it turns out that it’s not so simple. For a start there are lots of bacteria in this relationship, and furthermore there may be more than one fungus. Lichens are not easy to define, but they appear to be crucial to all life on land partly because they can dissolve rocks and create soil – over millions of years, and partly because they protect those early land plants – the algae – from drying out.
Neither is our gut easy to define: ‘Your gut (which if unfolded would occupy an area of 32 square metres), ears, toes, eyes, mouth, skin and every surface, passage and cavity you possess team with bacteria and fungi. You carry around more microbes than your ‘own’ cells. There are more bacteria in your gut than stars in our galaxy.’* We, too, are a walking ecosystem.
Somehow the concept of an individual seems a little blurred; everything about our environment and ourselves is interconnected, sometimes for good, sometimes less so.
And we too are part of the ecosystem of the wood. Humans have ‘farmed’ the wood for hundreds of years, planting and felling in cycles. Wolves, lynx, bears, wild boar, giant auroch (cattle) and beavers no longer roam here. More recently the community has access to walk their dogs, to make dens, to wonder.
After all this ruminating on fungi, lichens and woods, I wondered what I could find in Torphins Wood in this cold January weather.
But first, a little history of the Torphins Wood
Lt Col Francis Newell Innes (1845-1907) was the youngest son of Col Thomas Innes. Francis never inherited the estate because he died before his father, but the Learney archives in Aberdeen show that he ran it efficiently for many years and was important in the feuing out of Torphins village. He was especially interested in the forestry which was, and remains, an important income for the estate. In 1906 he wrote an article for the ‘Transactions of Royal Scottish Arboricultural Society’ which was published shortly after his death. This article tells us that a crop of Scots Pine was felled in 1850 in Torphins Wood. The 1st edition of the OS map (surveyed 1866) shows an area of treeless moor, the same shape as today’s wood, surrounded by a line of trees round much of the boundary. It was policy to allow some fallow time between felling and planting because of problems with ‘the beetle’. Presumably the beech I mentioned above was one of these boundary trees – suggesting it was a good age in 1866 and possibly planted in about 1806 when early planting began.
In 1870 alternate parallel rows of larch and Scots pine were planted (2420 of each tree), but the larch failed after sixteen years because the soil was too wet. In 1886 spruce was under planted to replace the larch.
Some will remember the gale of 1953 when much of the wood was blown. Crathes too was devastated by that gale – blown wood has little value since it is damaged and because gales result in a glut of wood on the market. People have told me that the Torphins Wood was replanted at that time and that there was little replanting after the gale of 1987. Three years ago the wood was partly cropped with some replanting.
On the sunny days when the ice is more manageable I venture back into the wood. The birds seemed to be more vocal than previously; I think the great tits are gearing up for spring. I immediately find a yellow fungus on some dead wood and, a few minutes later, a small group of hibernating orange ladybirds, Halyzia sedecimguttata, on the trunk of a sycamore tree. This ladybird is found throughout Britain, but is less common in Scotland. I am surprised to find that its main food is mildew; so another fungus connection!
The lichens make wonderful patterns everywhere. I take a ridiculous amount of photographs. The benefits of the dead wood that is left to rot can easily be seen.
I move into the centre of the wood for a while. The deep ruts left by the heavy machinery and the birch brush have left the wood difficult to negotiate, but slowly walkers have revisited their old haunts. First I check out the old sitkas. Their cones are distinctive and different from the Norway spruce cones which I see in other parts of the wood.
There is only one old larch in the wood but I give it an affectionate pat as I pass – even if you can’t hug people you can still hug the trees. All the lower branches seem to be dead and covered with lichen. The thread like lichens are of the Usnea genus that only grow in clean air. They show that there is very little pollution in the wood.
Just on from the larch is the only mature aspen in the wood. There were two but one got felled in the latest crop. However, the aspens have a strategy for survival. All around the mature tree are suckers which will, we hope, in time grow to maturity – how ever many saplings survive they will all be the same individual. The aspen that was felled has also produced suckers that are all connected to each other.
Moving back to the main path, I can see Mount Keen in the distance – the most easterly of all the Munros. By the golf course there are witches brooms on the birch. The Woodland Trust website informs me that these are galls formed by micro-organisms; furthermore the witches brooms on birch trees are usually formed by the fungus, Taphrina betulina.
The paths are busy with people enjoying the sunshine. Some stop to share their love of the wood. We talk (at a distance) of woodpecker nests, of pine martens, of declining kestrel numbers, and of fungi. It is the rotten wood of the birch trees – caused by hoof or polypore fungi – that enable the woodpeckers to hollow out their nests. Unrotted wood would be too hard for them. There is a hazard though: because the hollow nest makes the tree even more fragile a gale will sometimes blow the top of the nest away, exposing the babies to predation. The pine marten might be badly in need of such a meal.
At the lower end of the wood I can see the Hill of Fare. All the way I am seeing fungi and lichens.
On the way home I spot a small piece of hair ice. There’s been a lot of it about this year. I was somewhat astonished to learn on Winter Watch that it will only grow on rotten wood that harbours a certain fungus – Exidiopsis effusa. It’s surprising what you learn when to start to write about a walk in the wood.
Everything it seems in the natural world is more complicated than we realise. What untold damage have we done by not understanding our environment?
The news from Crathes is of snow. Cecilia says she is washing a lot of pots – it’s such a boring job, but Joanna is pleased of the help. And I am pleased to hear that there are now stainless steel sinks to replace the old pot and wooden sinks. The ‘new’ sinks have come from a kitchen overhaul and are not quite as deep or so hard on the back. The glasshouses are being power washed and some painting is taking place. Cuttings are doing well and Mike has even managed to do some rose pruning. There has been a limited amount of snow clearing (the gardens are still closed) and brushing the snow from the box and yew hedges. If the snow is allowed to get heavy it can do a lot of damage. From the photographs that Cecilia sent it looks as if Crathes has had more snow than Torphins.
In 1696 a List of Pollable Persons within the shire of Aberdeen was drawn up; said to be for the purpose of taxing all those people over sixteen and not beggars; in effect a poll tax list. Mostly these lists have not survived, but the original document for Aberdeenshire is in the archives of the University of Aberdeen. Later in 1844 the Spalding Club had the list published and more recently (2002) the North-East Scotland Family History Society have conveniently produced the list of the Parish of Kincardine O Neil in booklet form. The original list was drawn up in 1695 (published 1696) following an Act of Parliament. Sir Alexander Burnett, grandson of James Burnett of Craigmyle, mentioned last week, had died the previous year. His widow Nicolas Young listed as ‘relict of Sir Alexander Burnett of Craigmill’ under the ‘Lands of Craigmill’ is due to pay £8/6/0. Living with her (I think in the house) are two daughters – Anna and Margaret; Janet Taylor; four servants – Anna Hay, Margaret Dun, Elspet Nivie and John Donaldsone; her gardener – George Johnstone – and his wife; and the gardener’s servant – Margarat Andersone. Other sub-tenants, grassmen, grasswomen and cottars are also listed under Craigmill. Nicolas Young has to pay an extra £1/0/0 as ‘possessor of the Mayns’.
As I said last week the Carigmyle line became ‘extinct’ because Alexander and Nicolas had no sons. Isabel, the eldest of their three daughters, married John Farquharson of Invercauld. John outlived Isabel, but when he died in 1750, his brother, Alexander Farquharson of Monaltries, bought Craigmyle.** I often wondered about ‘Monaltrie House’ in the village and now I can make a guess! The original ‘Monaltries House’ is just outside Ballater near the Craigendarroch pass.
By coincidence I came on some photos of a Farquharson of Monaltries monument I had taken some years ago in a lovely birch wood close to Ballater, but on the south side of the Dee.
Next time I hope to have more news from Crathes. Take care everyone. It may be cold, but the days are getting longer.
* Sheldrake, Merlin, Entangled Life (2020)
** Bailey Eileen A, (Ed), The Holly and the Horn (2005)