Fabulous Forvie

Most visitors to Forvie National Nature Reserve, it’s fair to say, go in expectation of glimpsing a range of birds and enjoying the fringe of sand dunes.  But of late there has been increasing appreciation of the number of pollinators, and given the rich floral diversity perhaps that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.

Our colleagues at Forvie manage a rather impressive meadow specifically for pollinators. The wildflowers here benefit from a cutting regime that emphasises the value of a late cut and the removing of cuttings. This allows longer flowering periods and seed setting. By removing the cuttings, the team at Forvie ensure that bigger, tougher, ranker plant species don’t take over.

The meadow was increasingly drawing admirers, and the team set up a short trail next to the visitor centre.  Information boards explaining species, habitats and behaviours proved extremely popular; visitors would stroll round taking their time to absorb the information and pausing studiously like Magnus Carlsen over his next chess move. The range of pollinator-friendly messaging also targets visiting gardeners and community groups with hints on how they could do their bit for nature in their own space.  

This smorgasbord for bumblebees, hoverflies, solitary bees and honey bees and others insects is seldom quiet. The butterflies that linger on the flower heads are one of the highlights.   It also offers a splash of colour for visitors to savour. All of this takes place within a few steps of the main car park, and a wildflower trail over the heath makes for a real bonus.

Forvie’s soil is thin, sandy and poor in nutrients, which is ideal for wildflowers .  However, given the harsh coastal climate, many plant species tend to be small and low-growing. 

So to the edited highlights.

Look out for bird’s-foot trefoil. A member of the pea family, the flowers resemble those of the sweet pea, and emit a similarly pleasant fragrance. On a hot day the smell can be almost intoxicating, helping to attract insects to pollinate the flowers. Bird’s-foot trefoil has several colloquial names depending on where you are in Britain. In southern England it’s known as ‘bacon and eggs’, due to the flowers’ colouration – orange-red for the bacon, and yellow for the eggs of course! But in north-east Scotland it’s also called ‘craa’s taes’ (literally ‘crow’s toes’). This name reflects the shape of the seed pods which for some resemble a crow’s foot.

Other draws include orchids, and the reserve boasts a few. Northern marsh, heath spotted, and the charmingly named frog orchid are worth searching for. If blue or purple are the colours for you, then you will enjoy Scottish bluebells, germander speedwell, viper’s bugloss, self-heal and wild thyme.  If you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of purple milk-vetch in June and July.  For those who prefer a white palate you will be in good company, as an array of bees favour the splashes of white clover. And who could ignore the yellows with dandelion, mouse-ear hawkweed, lady’s bedstraw (in past times it was used for stuffing mattresses), and tormentil vying for your attention.

But amidst this heady floral variety a word of warning for prospective visitors. There are few guarantees in nature, and meadows can differ markedly from year to year

One thing is for sure, it’s never the ‘same old, same old’ at Forvie.  Why not pop a reminder in your calendar for 2022: ‘Must visit Forvie’?

Visit Forvie National Nature Reserve

With sincere thanks to Mark Williamson at Forvie NNR for his images and help with this piece.

The Thyme is right

When it comes to fragrance and the ability to attract bees you have to hand it to thyme.  One of our most popular herbs, it is both easy to grow and undemanding of space.  No wonder those who want to help pollinators love this little herb.

Herbs are a great option for those who can only have a window box or a container. Garden thyme in particular offers so much.  The leaves have a lovely scent, the flowers are vivid and draw pollinators in good numbers, and when it comes to cooking, it has long been on the top of the herb list. The leaves can be added fresh or dried in a range of dishes. 

When you dig into the reference books to find out more about thyme, you quickly discover that there are many varieties. It is reckoned that our garden thyme originated in the Mediterranean area, and it certainly seems to prosper in well-drained sites and low nutrient soils. 

We are fortunate to have a relative of garden thyme in Scotland. I’ve been seeing it whilst out on hill walks so our species must tolerate cold and wet Scottish winters. Like its garden relative our wild thyme is a magnet for pollinators.

The Greeks must have enjoyed the scent of burnt thyme as it found its way into their religious ceremonies. Indeed its name originates from ‘thymos’, which translates as ‘perfume’.  Others found alternative uses for thyme, for example placing it under pillows in the belief that it would help to fend off maladies ranging from the plague to bad dreams.

There are cultural associations in Scotland too. In some quarters, many moons ago, thyme was associated with fairies and it was viewed as bad luck to bring it into a house. A more pleasant association is found in folk music where the song ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ has been popular for many years. Indeed in 1965 Joan Baez performed it in Edinburgh, as YouTube will testify.

Thyme is an important element of Scotland’s machair, and, as with many wild plants, cropped up in traditional remedies, such as for settling stomachs and warding off nightmares.  Unconfirmed reports suggested it had antiviral, antibiotic, antiseptic properties, which in this current era of widespread use of hand sanitiser strikes a highly topical note.  Finally, thyme extracts are in some quarters viewed as part of a ‘tonic’ that beekeepers can feed to their honey bees in spring to get them up to strength after a long hard winter.

When I’ve sat down to photograph thyme and watch the insects visiting it, I’ve been impressed by the range of pollinators, which include honey bees, various bumble bees, and solitary bees.

Many of our favourite herbs are great for pollinators.  Lavender, rosemary, borage, sage, fennel, marjoram, mint, chives … the list is endless. Thyme as a member of the Lamiaceae, or mint, family of plants is a worthy addition to that list.