Few people realise that Forvie national nature reserve, on the coast some 20 miles north of Aberdeen, has so many hidden secrets, both natural and historical.
The landscape here never stays still, whipped up by wind and washed with the tides, so every visit reveals something new. The seasons also bring change and spring is one of the best times to get out and enjoy the many aspects the reserve has to offer.
The earliest hunter gatherers in the North-East found the banks of the Ythan Estuary a suitable place to settle, as they found flint in the raised pebble beaches and could feast on shellfish or hunt larger animals in the surrounding thick forest. However, sand began to blow from offshore and the unique landscape we have today started to take shape.
The dunes built up and up, smothering the settlements of the Bronze Age, advancing northwards to cliffs and rocky shore. This didn’t stop the sand and today the dunes continue along the top of the cliffs between Collieston and Rockend, or Sandend (Sanyne), as those from north of Forvie refer to the end of the beach.
It is here that the lost village of Forvie was found. The walls of the kirk, a chapel dedicated to St Adamnan and dating to the 12th century, are all that can be seen today; other buildings remain under the sand or were dismantled to provide stone for new dwellings away from the dunes.
The story of the curse, documented in local legend, is that three disinherited daughters were cast out to sea to meet a watery fate. As they looked back on the village, they cursed that nothing should be found at Forvie but ‘Thystle, bent and sand’ if they reached safety. The modern landscape is certainly characterised by thistles, marram grass and dunes, so perhaps there is some truth to the tale.
The dune landscape and variety of plants at Forvie are distinctive, and this is one of the reasons the reserve is protected by British law and European directive.
The dunes build and erode every day, most noticeably at the Ythan estuary across the water from Newburgh. This vast expanse of sand was used by smugglers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to conceal their contraband, while desert warfare training took place in World War 2. A submerged concrete pill box lies at the estuary mouth and blocks designed to stop tanks in their tracks appear and vanish with the shifting sand.
Growing conditions on the nature reserve are harsh, but heather is found alongside marram grass, while crowberry and lichens add colour to the windswept heathland. Wild pansies, tormentil and bird’s foot trefoil grow low to avoid being buffeted by the relentless breeze. Creeping willow is one of the more successful tree species to survive, growing to only a few inches in height. However, like a taller willow, its tiny catkins burst from furry buds and are soon visited by the earliest emerging bees and other insects.
The cliffs and shore offer sheltered spots for thrift, oysterplant and scot’s lovage. Northern marsh orchids appear as purple spikes in late spring by the paths, then are replaced with carpets of thyme and the tiny white flowers of eyebright.
Despite the local climate, many species of butterfly and moth have been recorded at Forvie. It is one of a few sites in Aberdeenshire that provide regular counts to the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. Thousands of six-spot burnet moths fly amongst the dunes with delicate red and black wings, warning of their foul taste to hungry birds. Walkers often need to tread carefully to avoid the hairy ‘wooly bear’ caterpillars of the garden tiger moth, which are also common at Forvie. When the sun comes out, dark-green fritillaries, meadow browns and common blues contribute to the butterfly count in good numbers.
The birdlife of the Ythan perhaps attracts the most visitors, as Forvie is an internationally important site for many species. During April and May, the largest gathering of eider ducks in Britain provides a wonderful spectacle on the estuary, which is easily viewed from Newburgh. Eiders are the UK’s largest sea duck and up to 5000 birds flock together at Forvie at this time of year. They are attracted by the sheltered waters of the estuary which provides their favourite food of mussels, alongside their ideal nesting habitat on the nature reserve.
The drakes are mostly black and white, but their breeding plumage is fresh and striking at this time of year. They use a flush of pink on their chests and olive green on the back of their heads to make them stand out from the crowd. In contrast, females are brown so that they are almost completely camouflaged once they start nesting in heather and long grass.
The males utter a peculiar cooing to woo the females, but once they have seen the ducks safely onto their nests, they leave and return to the estuary to feed and moult their feathers. The females sit tight on their nests for up to four weeks, going without food and only leaving occasionally to find water to drink. It is vital that they have enough fat reserves before nesting to make it through this time.
The nest is lined with eiderdown feathers, which help to insulate the eggs if the duck is chased off the nest. We ask visitors to be very careful as they walk through the main nesting area, so that the ducks are able to remain on their nests and conserve their energy as much as possible.
Once the ducklings hatch, they are protected by the female ducks who join together to form crèches. It’s a perilous time for the youngsters and the number of ducklings that survive to the end of the summer can be very low.
Another group of birds that rely on Forvie every year is the terns, who arrive from Africa and beyond to nest among the dunes or even on the beach. Four species can be seen; Sandwich, Arctic, Common and Little Tern, and all are graceful in flight, earning them the nickname of sea swallows. They plunge dive for small fish and shrimps close to the shore or in the estuary, although sandwich terns are known to travel as far as Montrose or the Moray Firth while foraging for food. All the terns are very vocal and their calls fill the air around the estuary during our summer months.
Terns nest on the ground, laying their eggs in small scrapes in the sand or beach pebbles. Although the adult birds can be aggressive, the nests are still vulnerable to foxes, otters and badgers, as well as birds like oystercatchers who will eat unguarded eggs.
On the east coast of Scotland, sandwich terns currently nest only at Forvie. Several hundred birds crowd together in one large colony, surrounded by nests of grass made by black-headed gulls. Only around 30 pairs of little terns nest in the dunes, but this colony accounts for one third of the Scottish population, which demonstrates how rare these small birds are.
Lucky visitors spotted humpback whales at Hackley Bay on the reserve in January this year. Humpbacks are 40 to 50 feet long and weigh about 40 tons. They migrate every year from their summer feeding grounds near the poles to warmer winter breeding waters, and are often found near coastlines. They feed only in summer, on tiny shrimp-like krill, plankton and small fish, then fast and live off their fat reserves in the winter.
You may encounter grey seals, hauled out at the mouth of the Ythan, or roe deer bounding across the heather moor. Expect the unexpected.
There are several way-marked walks at Forvie which allow you to wander in the dunes, along the cliff top, beach or estuary – and perhaps discover some hidden natural secrets of your own.
Annabel Drysdale moved to Aberdeen from Edinburgh in 1999 to complete an MSc at Aberdeen University. After working at St Cyrus NNR, she moved to Forvie in 2002 and has been the manager there since 2005.Tweet
This is an article from the April 2012 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.