Banks of the Dee hold hidden treasures
This month we hear about the importance of the grasslands on the banks of the Dee, and the hidden treasures they hold, from rare wildflowers to brightly coloured insects.
As we head for the Dee during the summer months to enjoy a variety of activities from angling to kayaking, it’s worth sparing a thought for the grasslands on the river’s banks. These areas are home to a rich array of species, all of which play a vital role in maintaining a healthy and thriving river catchment.
One of the Dee Catchment Partnership’s many objectives is to identify species-rich grasslands on the riverbanks, and promote their positive management to maintain diversity. Environment Planner for Aberdeenshire Council, Judith Cox, works with the Partnership towards this shared goal.
“Species-rich grasslands are valuable wildlife habitats that support a range of flowering plants, pollinating bees, butterflies, moths and other invertebrates – one of the reasons why parts of the River Dee and its banks and tributaries are recognised as sites of European, national and local importance,” she explains. “These grasslands have dwindled over the last few decades however, and now make up only a small proportion of Scotland’s grassland.
“Losses have been due to changes in land use as land is ploughed and fertilised for arable cropping and ryegrass pastures, and forestry trees are planted. Natural events such as the recent flooding from Storm Frank can also sweep away areas of grassland, although, in time these tend to recover naturally. Flood prevention works can also cause a loss of these semi-natural habitats.”
Semi-natural grasslands are those that have been left largely alone, with only occasional mowing or grazing from animals. Local botanical expert, David Welch, describes the benefits of this approach: “On the Dee, the richer areas of grassland have survived as a result of the way they have been managed, often by ghillies who keep the grassland accessible for anglers. This management has the very beneficial effect of maintaining the flower-rich grasslands and preventing their reversion to woodland. Without the ghillies’ work we would lose many of the most interesting species of flowers.”
The pretty, yellow globeflower, of the buttercup family, goldenrod from the daisy and dandelion family, and the rare greater butterfly orchid - so called because the spreading petals resemble the wings of a butterfly - can be found at various locations on the banks of the Dee, from Potarch to Banchory. “The first discovery in Britain of Mackay’s horsetail, a rare plant resembling a narrow green knitting needle, was on the banks of the Dee,” continues David. “For many years, only one other British location was known, together with some in Ireland.”
Different species of wildlife need different amounts of light, shade, shelter, and different sources of food, adds Judith, so the best grassland for wildlife contains a variety of conditions to suit a variety of plants and animals. She describes some of the insects to look out for on the Dee’s banks this summer: “The Bee Beetle is about a centimetre long with attractive yellow and black markings on its back – it’s often found half-buried in the flower heads of the melancholy thistle. The chimney sweeper moth is a small, black moth with white fringes to its wing tips, often found on riverbank grasslands.”
While some cutting or grazing of riverbank grasslands is needed to prevent grasses growing tall and dense, and shading out smaller plants, it is possible to ‘over manage’ these areas, by excessive cutting, reseeding and returfing of the grasslands, as Judith continues: ”The riverbanks are important for all sorts of recreation from walking to fishing, but achieving the right balance between recreational, agricultural and conservation efforts is key to managing these squeezed habitats sympathetically, and helping to preserve the rich, catchment-wide biodiversity for which the Dee is internationally recognised.”
Cllr Peter Argyle, chair of Aberdeenshire Council’s Infrastructure Services Committee, said: “Aberdeenshire is known across the country and beyond for its unspoilt landscapes and wide variety of flora and fauna and it’s important that we work together to protect it. The work of the Dee Catchment Partnership is an important part of that, and their efforts are both fascinating and inspiring. We should all remember and appreciate that there are groups like this making sure we can enjoy the outdoors without affecting the delicate ecosystem.”
How you can help:
Look out for hidden treasures in the species-rich grasslands of the Dee this summer, and send photos of your finds to the North East Scotland Biological Records Centre www.nesbrec.org.uk
Suggested photo caption (referring to Greater Butterfly Orchid image): Enjoy the river this summer but tread carefully: the locally rare greater butterfly orchid can be found on the banks of the Dee
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