Searching for Marsh Saxifrage (pt.3)
The third survey was for the Munsary Peatlands nature reserve. I was fortunate in this one as there was an undergraduate student from Stirling University doing his degree project on the Marsh Saxifrage at Munsary. Not only was he counting the flowering plants, but testing the water chemistry of flushes where the Marsh Saxifrage grows with flushes where it doesn’t grow, to test what are the conditions it requires.
Arriving in the morning at the reserve, Charlie and his friend Steve had been camping out overnight in order to have good long days of fieldwork. As I got out the car two shapes with big round black heads appeared and said hello. This was Charlie and Steve in their midge hoods – it was before 10.00am and the midges were really going for it.
After very quickly changing my boots I set off across the bog with Charlie, his friend having to head back down the A9 to Stirling.
An hour and a half of hiking across untracked moorland, hopping across burns and carefully picking our way through wet sphagnum lawns found us up at the main flush. There are 4 flushes and the smaller ones had been sampled the day before.
After the disappointments of the Pentland Hills and Loch Ruard, it was with joy that I saw the little yellow flowerheads sprinkled through the marshy vegetation. Closer examination sorted out the Lesser Spearwort, which was a buttercup shade of yellow, from the Marsh Saxifrage that was a more lemony shade.
A full report from Charlie will follow in his dissertation for his degree, but I counted upward of 250 flowerheads in the colony. And that is only the plants that were in flower. There was a substantial number of vegetative shoots there that weren’t going to flower, as Marsh saxifrage has two ways of reproducing itself.
It can do so by creating a runner that roots and sprouts, and eventually separates itself from the parent plant. Or it can invest energy in creating the lovely flowerhead with its blush of orange freckles on the petals, to guide in flies to pollinate it. It can then set seed and create a new plant as the seed germinates the following year.
The area looked like it was a favourite spot for Red Deer to come and enjoy the mineral-rich water of the flush, and in so doing open up bare patches for seeds to germinate. But that has to be balanced against the damage the hooves cause to the existing shoots. We don’t know exactly how much disturbance is a good thing, but this continued observation of a number of sites may help with providing information.
I departed happily downhill in the bright sun, with huge clouds sailing across the vast Caithness skies, leaving Charlie to his water sampling, a lonesome figure against the broad brown moorland landscape. A splendid way to appreciate the wild qualities of the Munsary peatlands reserve, and reassured that this rare wildflower is thriving on the reserve.