Whether a walker, conservationist, scientist, photographer, writer, artist, novelist or just curious, the Black Wood is inspirational for all.
On the south shore of Loch Rannoch between the Dall and the Camghouran grow some magnificent Scots Pine trees - The Black Wood -one of Rannoch’s “jewels”. There are few surviving remnants of the 'Great Forest of Caledon’, which used to cover much of Scotland, as beautiful as this. Woodland has been growing on this site virtually undisturbed since the end of the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago making it a magical place.
It is a Special Area of Conservation, protecting the many special plants and animals that live among the pine trees. The magnificent Caledonian Scots pine trees grow for about 250-300 years and are, in the Black Wood, often known as “granny pines”. They can tell a story or two.
Why not park at the west end of the wood on the loch shore and walk some of the trails, find Gunnar’s Tree and learn about the canals used by woodsmen to transport timber to the loch.
Watch out for three iconic animals – deer, squirrel and pine marten and look out for the wood ant hills. The bird life is interesting and includes tits, siskins, woodpeckers and wrens; you might also be lucky enough to see Scottish Crossbills.
The Black Wood broods on the southern shore of Loch Rannoch. The Scots Pines' dark needles prick the air with 'after rain' fragrance. Their reptile scaled bark is rough and ridged. The undergrowth is a symphony of wet decay breathing new life against the odds.
Ling heather and blaeberry fight for light grovelling beneath the majesty of the granny pines. These granny pines are used by the Forestry Commission as a seed source to be distributed wherever genetic purity is required. The oldest trees have lived through the gore of clan warfare; the rise and fall of the Macgregors; the march of Redcoats; the ebb and flow of centuries. They have survived the assaults of 18th century foresters with their canals and Canadian lumberjacks in the Second World War.
A walk in the Black Wood can be silent. There are animals and birds but they are not easily seen. Early in the year Crossbills begin to nest, even in February. The males are red and the females are green, both have crossed mandibles evolved to extract the seeds from pine cones.
On the forest floor wood ants swarm in summer and follow pheromone marked trails up the trees to tend their aphids like farmers looking after cattle. The aphids pierce even the tough bark of Scots pines to suck sugar rich sap from the phloem. They imbibe more than they need and excrete sticky honeydew to the advantage of the ants. Solicitously the ants caress the aphids with their antennae on the abdomen and obligingly the aphid yields forth a glistening sphere of honeydew.
Ants are basically predators and so they get protein from their insect prey but were it not for the symbiotic relationship that they have with the aphids they might run short of carbohydrate fuel for their energetic lifestyle. What does the aphid get in return? - the ants protect them from predators such as ladybirds and lacewings as well as parasitic wasps that would otherwise lay their eggs within the body of the aphid. Gruesomely the larva of the parasitic wasp would then eat out the insides of the aphid leaving the vital organs until last to allow the meat to remain fresh.
The ants are not immune from attack. Green Woodpeckers specialise in eating ants and will leave conical holes in the ants pine needle mound of a nest where they have thrust in their heads and enormously long tongue. The tongue is so long that it has to wrap round the back of the skull in order to be accommodated. Another species, the Great Spotted Woodpecker is actually quite common and often detected by its high pitched call, by those that know. Like other woodpeckers it has a characteristic undulating flight. In spring it drums on trees to announce its presence.
There are a range of insects that live in the ants mounds and they are collectively known as inquilines. A metallic green beetle is a prominent example. It is related to the Rose chafer and in summer will burrow into the nest to lay its eggs. Some of the inquilines are harmful to the ants and will eat their larvae, others don't do any harm just living on detritus.
It is important to the ants to have open areas for their nests as they require the sunlight to heat them up. As a consequence nests are often seen alongside the forest tracks. Unusually for ants, a nest may have a number of queens and the main nest may have satellite nests connected by trails. At the sawdust pits near Dall Oil beetles have been found. The larva waits for bees on flowers and then grabs onto them to be transported. There are, of course, plenty of midges, house flies and deer flies in their respective seasons.
Red deer and roe deer are the larger mammals. Red deer were always woodland animals until man forced them onto the bare hills that he had created by deforestation. In autumn the stags roar lustily and throughout the year the roe deer bark like dogs when alarmed. Once upon a time there would have been bears and wolves.
Red squirrels are present in plenty but are more easily seen near habitation where even their arch enemies, the pine martens visit bird tables and squirrel feeders. Even the Polecat is present but seldom seen.
Small birds tend to stay hidden but small parties of long tailed tits feed in the tops of birches and willows. Flocks of Lesser Redpolls twitter from tree top to tree top. Occasionally a tree creeper can be spotted hugging a tree as it spirals up the trunk in search of tiny insects. Robins, Chaffinches and wrens are found throughout the Black Wood. Blue tits, Great tits and Coal tits are present but there are no Crested tits. Once upon a time there must have been. Now they are restricted to the Cairngorms.
The Black Wood has a restricted suite of native trees - the Scots Pine is dominant and then there are Birches, Aspen, Rowans, Goat Willows, Bird Cherries, Junipers and along the burns Alders. At the west end of the wood, there are a few Hollies. Beneath the trees Wood Anemones, Wood Sorrel and the delightful Chickweed Wintergreen flower.
Twenty years ago Capercailzies were quite often seen in the Black Wood, at Carie and at Dall. The Scottish population had gone extinct and Capercailzies were reintroduced from Scandinavia. Now they are struggling again and are probably absent from the Blackwood of Rannoch. The cock bird is the size of a turkey and in the breeding season is quite aggressive. One used to terrorise tourists at Carie. At Dall, when Rannoch School was in existence, a female would walk tamely around the school. There is even a photograph of one perched on the (stationary!) rotor blade of a helicopter! Capercailzies are like Black Grouse in that they Lek. That is, they have a dancing area used by the males in the breeding season to attract females. There used to be such a Lek at the west end of the Blackwood.
The burns that run through the Black Wood feed into Loch Rannoch and birds that live there make their way up the burns in the breeding season. Dippers, Grey Wagtails, common sandpipers and Goosanders are examples. Brown Trout make their way up the burns to spawn.
The fish in the loch attract Herons and Ospreys. Ospreys have bred at Carie and at the west end of the Blackwood. They favour tall trees with and open approach and quite often choose pylons as a substitute.
In winter when the snowfall is heavy the Black Wood is transformed into Narnia. The boughs bend to the ground and wispy trees may be bent double. In sunlight it is a transport of ethereal beauty. Twigs radiate spectral beauty as crystals shatter the light into its many colours. When the sun does not shine an air of menace and foreboding arises.
It has been the policy of management plans to expand the size of the Blackwood by felling non-native trees in peripheral areas. Initially this produces a devastated landscape but after about ten years regeneration of the native species heals the wounds. As a remnant of the once huge Caledonian Pine Forest, the Blackwood is of international importance and is precious.