Garbh Eilean - a walk through the oakwood to the shore
By Jim Manthorpe
Garbh Eilean translates as Rough Island and it is an apt name. This small scrap of land lying just off the north shore of Loch Sunart is rugged and rocky with heather, bracken and birch growing on its craggy knolls. And it is well known for its wildlife. The island provides refuge from predators for nesting birds such as terns, herons and gulls. There is an excellent wooden hide overlooking the island, accessed by a boardwalk that meanders through the birch trees. It's one of my favourite places around Loch Sunart so with spring in the air I took an amble along the footpath from Ardery to the hide.
Sunart is renowned for two very distinct habitats: the Atlantic oakwood and the sea loch, both rich in biodiversity. The walk from Ardery to Garbh Eilean introduces you to both. A keen eye will notice that nearly all of the trees are young. This is because the whole area was once a dense conifer plantation which has now been felled and encouraged to revert to native woodland. It's a heartening sight to see the forest take shape so rapidly. Already the trunks and branches are covered with the lichens and mosses that are so typical of the west coast.
Look around and you will see, not only the crooked branches of the sessile oak, but the white bark of the birch and red flaking trunks of Scots pine. Beneath the branches is an understorey of blaeberry and ling. On warm days in spring you may hear the drumming of the great spotted woodpecker echoing through the wood, or see a scarlet flash as a redstart flies by.
The forest grows down to the shore where a narrow band of rock snakes around the perimeter of the loch. The rock is patterned with lichens of white, yellow and green and through it all are the caramel shades of bladderwrack. This collar of colour around the loch is the inter-tidal zone; the sharply defined border between the greens and browns of the forest and the slate grey and blue of the sea.
It is here where you will see most of the wildlife. I sat and watched quietly for an hour and was kept company by herons, oystercatchers and curlews. All three species are common here and all three are adapted to a similar niche but they look and behave very differently. The oystercatcher with its sharp suit of black and white and a gaudy stabbing orange bill is a restless bird. They gather in small flocks on the shore to feed on the mudflats at low tide. The herons, on the other hand, with their long legs and great sword-like bills are solitary and steady. They wait patiently, motionless, looking into the water waiting for prey. I watched one as it locked on to something and then, in a flash, it stabbed into the water and pulled out a crab. It shook it from side to side and then wolfed it down whole with three jerks of its head.
To the west of Garbh Eilean is another smaller island known as Holly Island. I counted nineteen common seals hauled up on its rocky shore. Despite their name, they are the less common of the two seal species in Scotland. The grey seal is more widespread.
But it's another aquatic mammal that everyone always wants to see: the otter. They are abundant around the shores of Loch Sunart. I found a number of sprainting sites; spraint being the name for otter droppings. They choose prominent tussocks of grass so that other otters may find them and know who is in the area. They use these sites so regularly that the ground is fertilised and the tussocks become lush and verdant, standing out from the surrounding grass.
I had seen otters here before and I knew that if I waited patiently and quietly I might be lucky enough to see another. The tide was coming in; a good time to see otters as they hunt in the kelp forests with the inrushing water. Sure enough, an otter passed below the hide, diving down every now and then and returning to the surface to chew on some delicacy it had caught. And then it caught a scorpionfish and made a beeline for the shore. Whenever they catch something substantial otters will always bring it ashore to devour it. It sat in the seaweed covered rocks just above the lapping waves, and tucked into that scorpion fish with great enthusiasm. And then it was back into the water, head up at first and then it dived down with a characteristic flick of the tail. I didn't see it again. I've spent a lot of time in the company of wild otters but I never tire of them. They have such character and no matter what else I might see on a day by the shore, if I see an otter it is usually the highlight.
Garbh Eilean wildlife hide is just off the road between Salen and Strontian. It was built by Forestry Commission Scotland. There are two car parks: one just 100 metres from the hide and another at Ardery, quarter of a mile away. There is a lovely path through the woods from the latter which makes the approach to the hide all the more enjoyable.