Mostly native

Paeonia mlokosewitschii affectionately known a Molly the witch near the Aviary Terrace, 19 May 2023.

The family walk was looking unhopeful with miserable weather – drizzle and low cloud. By the time we got to the start, just a few miles above Torphins in the Corrennie hills, there was thick fog. Other than the occasional tree looming out of the mist there was nothing much to be seen. Nothing to see, but plenty to hear: cuckoos, curlews and skylarks amongst others! With such an accompaniment the walk could only be joyful. Cuckoos, curlews and skylarks have been in serious decline; here at least they seemed to be in good health. Pondering on the soundscape of the misty moor, I thought it would be good to walk round Crathes concentrating on the birdsong. My skills regarding birdsong are shaky, but I knew just who could help me out. Dave, our tree label volunteer, is an expert birder and particularly tuned to their calls. He can tell that a redpoll is flying overhead by catching its hard metallic trill – prr. Recently, he heard the nuthatch at Crathes and finally managed to see it. Nuthatches are recent visitors to the North-East and this is a new record for Crathes. We start, in the second week of May, at the main Crathes gates. The wood pigeon is calling in the background, the rooks are coming and going from the small rookery near the bus stop, and a host of small birds – the feisty wren, the robin, great and blue tits, the tinkling goldfinch and the descending warble of the willow warbler – are readily heard. We walk up beside the millpond with goldcrests singing high up above us. Chaffinch, coal tit, blackbird and chiff chaff are added to the list. All these birds will be nesting and needing to feed youngsters. Will the unfolding leaves of the woodland trees host enough caterpillars? According to the British Trust for Ornithology the great tit needs over 10,000 caterpillars per brood – all to be provided in the three weeks before fledging, and it’s common for the great tit to raise two broods a year. Judging by all the bird song about there must be millions of caterpillars in these woods.

Dave’s ears are finely tuned to catch the variety of birdsong, 11 May 2023.

Passing the giant sequoia we see the many holes in the soft bark, likely to have been used as roosts by tree creepers. Side tracked beside an area of young trees, the weeping Brewer’s spruce, Picea breweriana, and the Cypress cedar, Cedrus brevifolia are noted. Neither are common trees; the spruce from above three thousand feet on the Oregon Californian border, the Cypress cedar similar to the Cedar of Lebanon, but smaller.

Giant sequoia trunk with roosting holes for tree creepers, 11 May 2023.
Brewer spruce, Picea breweriana above the Millpond, 11 May 2023.

I am looking for native wild flowers: wood sorrel and dog violets are common and when we get onto the boardwalks the swamps are full of the aptly named marsh marigold. We move through the walks and along the Coy Burn. I am always hoping for a dipper, but no luck today. Beside the bridge we hear the blackcap – a joyful, lovely song – and the disyllabic flight call of the siskin. A redpoll flies over, though I don’t realise. I have no problem recognising the crow cawing away in the woods.

Marsh marigolds in the swamp, 11 May 2023.
On the boardwalk, 11 May 2023.

Moving along beside the fields of oilseed rape we hear both the song thrush and the mistle thrush. The song thrush makes a glorious sound and usually repeats its song, but the mistle thrush has a more mournful call. A yellow hammer calls in the distance and to the north – ‘a little bit of bread and no cheeeeese’, and a swallow (my first for the year) flies by. The old barn beside the field should be an ideal place for the swallow to build its nest. We talk about loss of habitat – suitable buildings for swallows and swifts and I remember the joy experienced when the screaming swifts returned each year to nest in our house in Moray – usually about 18 May.

The home farm fields are yellow with oilseed rape, 11 May 2023.
This barn looks ideal for nesting swallows, 11 May 2023.

The young larch cones, still with a touch of pink, along with the primroses beside the path and the greater stitchwort flowers give us something else to consider as we head round the fields towards the Crathes carpark. Then Dave picks out the distance song of the skylark and, nearby, a stock dove calls – throaty, but more nervous than the wood pigeons. A little further along and he hears the call of the tree creeper followed by its song. It’s a pretty song and clear though not commonly heard.

Young larch cones, 11 May 2023.
Stitchwort, Stellaria holostea, a member of the pink family, 11 May 2023.

We are welcomed to the walled garden by the blackcap and the dunnock. The dunnock, or hedge sparrow, is quite a drab bird, but its song belies its looks. I have one singing in my garden every morning. It is only recently that I realised it had such a lovely song. We didn’t hear the cuckoo at Crathes, but the gardeners and rangers report that one was cuckooing a few days ago. The oyster catchers have made a nest in the agapanthus pot in the Fountain Garden. This is not a good choice for a nest – people always go too close to look and success is unlikely. Last year the nest in the tall urn in the Red Garden was initially successful with chicks hatching, but eventually they came to grief.

Taken from a distance, oyster catchers and nest, 11 May 2023.

The walk has taken up most of the morning and the garden visit is brief. Joanna has been nurturing oak seedlings. Last October she collected acorns from trees on the estate and planted them in pots left outside. The mice got some but a fair few germinated. She has noted where they are from and from under which tree. The walnuts that Dave brought from the British Legion are doing very well.

Young oak seedlings, 11 May 2023.
Walnut seedlings, 11 May 2023.

In the Rose Garden I am amazed at how the grass has grown. The weather was perfect to bring on that flush of green. Steve is taking great care laying the channel of cobbles so that the water will run down the side of the path to the collecting drain. He tells me that the cobbles were found when the winter floods swept away large quantities of soil near the Millpond. It was realised that these cobbles were those removed from the courtyard when the redevelopment for the café took place. The courtyard area with buildings is named as ‘offices’ on the 1838 estate map and is thought to have been the cattle yard of the Home Farm (the castle being dual purpose as family seat and farmhouse). Steve grades the cobbles with smaller ones in the middle part of the drain, but he is running out of small cobbles.

Steve makes sure the water will channel off the path and along the cobbles, 11 May 2023.

I head through the native woodland area looking for more wild flowers. There is a wide sward of blue – a mixture of ground ivy and bugle. Both are of the lamiaceae (previously labiatae) or deadnettle family, the bugle with a larger flower and shinier leaf. A fly resting on the bugle is St Mark’s fly, so called because it is much in evidence about St Mark’s Day, 25 April. A distinctive fly, it drifts about in grassy places with black legs dangling. It’s late this year like most things, on account of the long cold spring, though at least we’ve not had late frosts.

Ground ivy, Glechoma hederacea, 11 May 2023.
St Mark’s fly, Bibio marci, 11 May 2023.

Another day, this time hot and sunny, I walk up from the gate listening for more bird song and looking for more wild flowers. The great tit greets me ‘teacher, teacher, teacher’, but soon I am lost without Dave to sort out the variety of songs. There are, however, two birds that I can only distinguish by their songs as they look so similar: the willow warbler with its descending lilt and the chiff chaff which sings its name and puts the emphasis equally on each syllable, unlike the great tit which puts the emphasis on the ‘teach’.

I am more comfortable with flowers. Bluebells, the English ones, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, mingle with stitchwort by the gate. The long dark blue corolla tubes, that hang on one side of the stem, tell me that they are not the invasive non-native Spanish bluebells, which also grow at Crathes and have flowers that open more widely and grow all round the stem. The Scottish bluebells, or harebells, come later in the year. I see all the flowers I saw last week (other than the marsh marigold) and also forget-me-not, alkanet, red campion, jack by the hedge and comfrey – though I’m not sure if it is the native species. In the upper layers of vegetation, broom, hawthorn, rowan and bird cherry catch my eye. Up near the gardener’s yard I find wild garlic, Allium ursinum, great for cooking with, but definitely invasive in the garden. The attempt to banish it from the walled garden has been rather a failure.

English bluebells and stitchwort near the main gate, 19 May 2023.
Forget-me-not, 19 May 2023.
The alkanet, Anchusa sp, of the borage family is introduced and readily naturalises, 19 May 2023.
Red campion, Silene dioica, of the pink (Caryophyllaceae) family, 19 May 2023.
Jack-by-the-hedge or garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, of the brassica family, 19 May 2023.
Bird cherry, Prunus padus, 11 May 2023.

It’s lovely to see the new highland calf. The Highland cattle are a great draw for visitors, but are also good for biodiversity, trampling the ground and eating some of the coarser grasses.

Highland calf by the main drive, 19 May 2023.

In the garden James and Steve are still working on the paths of the Rose Garden and Helen, volunteer, is finishing painting the arbours. Andy knew where to find small cobbles to enable Steve to finish the side drain and all that is needed now is to connect it to the main drain. Old grills and drain covers are being reused. The opening of the Rose Garden is planned for late July, by which time the plants should be settling in nicely.

Helen finishes the arbour painting, 19 May 2023.
Steve and James work on the connection to the main drain, 19 May 2023.

In the Fountain Garden the oyster catcher is still sitting on her/his eggs (they take turn about) and I am delighted to see more mining bees about, though some holes in the croquet lawn path look rather big and I wonder if the oyster catchers have found a new food source.

Some of the mining bee holes look to have been raided, maybe by the oyster catcher, 19 May 2023.

Catching up with the news I hear that Emily, apprentice, has been offered a full time job at Crathes for a year, starting in August. This is great news all round; there is no shortage of work waiting!

Emily will move from apprentice to official gardener in August, 19 May 2023.

A few changes have been made to the evolution garden. James has decided that the dead cycads in the Pangea bed need to be removed and that he will not persevere with them. He has replaced them with Thuja plicata ‘Whipcord’ a low growing cultivar of the giant western red cedar that I failed to realise was a conifer. The monkey puzzle trees in the cretaceous bed were only temporary and they have been replaced with Pinus parviflora ‘Fukai’, another gymnosperm. This cultivar of the Japanese white pine is slow growing, but will need to be well pruned if it is to remain in this bed.  The tree ferns look dead but may yet surprise us. Adapting to warming temperatures is difficult when hard frosts of winter persist along with summer heatwaves.

The tiny conifer, Thuja plicata ‘Whipcord in the Evolution Garden, 19 May 2023.

In the glasshouse the voodoo lily, Amorphophallus, is in flower. It is a smaller species than the A. titan, or corpse flower, which makes such a statement at RBGE and Kew, but all the same Joanna says it made a horrible stink last week when it first opened up. The smell of rotting flesh is to attract flies to pollinate the flowers which are at the bottom of the spathe.

Amorphophallus rivieri plants in leaf, 9 August 2021.
Amorhophallus in flower, 19 May 2023.

I head up to the ranger’s office. The rangers have eleven properties to care for and are always busy. Roddy has been emptying the dog poo bins, Viv is somewhat tired after spending a night at Haddo carrying out a bat survey, and Lynne is at a meeting about the Millpond. I meet Bethany, the new seasonal ranger, and Olivia, a student volunteer. I learn that there have been two heron nests this year, next to the old heronry damaged by Storm Arwen. The heron trail that leads from the main gate to the castle is being developed for increased accessibility. There is a problem with the early part of the trail due to tree roots and a steep gradient, but ultimately the trail will be wheel chair accessible. There are already off-road wheelchairs available to use on the estate at no charge.

Outside I investigate the meadows. I have a particular interest because I am trying to develop meadows in my own little garden. Up near the shop is a small meadow that has been developing for some years. The yellow rattle that is so important for parasitising the rank grasses is an annual and so I am interested to see a thick carpet of it self-seeded amongst the grass. The last few years the fox and cubs, Pilosella aurantiaca, has been dominant in this meadow with some St John’s wort evident. Though fox and cubs is not a native it is much appreciated by hoverflies and it is one of the plants I am establishing in my ‘lawn’. It was also a favourite of Sybil, Lady Burnett. The meadow behind the viewpoint is a younger development. Last year it was dominated by a yellow dandelion-type plant, maybe a cat’s ear, but this year it looks as if the ox-eyed daisies may be serious competition. Ox-eyes are lovely in a meadow and I am bringing on seedlings to add to my lawn, but beware; they are inclined to seed everywhere and you may not want them in your flower borders. Down by the castle where the bank overlooking the croquet lawn has been left unmown a natural meadow is developing. I noted a cowslip the other week and forgot to check it this week to see if the rabbits had been busy – rabbits love cowslips.

The yellow rattle is well established in the shop meadow, 19 May 2023.
Crabapple, Malus ‘Indian Magic’, above the viewpoint with ox-eye daisy meadow about to flower, 19 May 2023.
Cowslip on the bank above the Croquet Lawn, 2 May 2023.

There was a seductive scent of honey wafting around the viewpoint which came from the Viburnum davidii; something I had never before realised.

Viburnum davidii has a lovely scent, 19 May 2023.

As I leave I notice what is probably one of the original drains leading from the courtyard. It looks just like an ancient version of the newly made one in the Rose Garden, and I wonder if this was the inspiration for the design.

Maybe an early nineteenth century drain, 19 May 2023.

Next time I visit I expect all the plants waiting for the frosts to go will be planted out and Joanna will be able to heave a sigh of relief as she passes on the responsibility of care to others. All the same, she feels a bit ‘empty nested’ at the thought.

Thousands of plants in the frame and glasshouses wait for the last frost to pass, 19 May 2023.

As I post this on International Day for Biological Diversity I experience mixed emotions. There is much to celebrate as people take their responsibility to the planet more seriously, but the odds against us all are stacked high.


The Millpond project is going to happen this summer. The water will be drained and much of the silt carefully removed. It is hoped that the project will be finished in time for the autumn return of salmon from the sea.

Now that pesticides are no longer used the paths are being hoed to keep down weeds. Kevin was careful to avoid hoeing the mining bee colonies.

2 thoughts on “Mostly native

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: