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Chapter 7. Natural History

In recent times—recent, that is, geologically—no sea separated Britain from the Continent. The present bed of the North Sea was a low plain intersected by streams. At that period, then, the plants and the animals of our country were identical with those of Western Europe. But the Ice Age came and crushed out life in this region. In time, as the ice melted, the flora and fauna gradually returned, for the land-bridge still existed. Had it continued to exist, our plants and animals would have been the same as in Northern France and the Netherlands. But the sea drowned the land and cut off Britain from the Continent before all the species found a home here. Consequently, on the east of the North Sea all our mammals and reptiles, for example, are found along with many which are not indigenous to Britain. In Scotland, however, we are proud to possess in the red grouse a bird not belonging to the fauna of the Continent.

The flora of Great Britain has been divided, as regards climatic types, into four classes—(i) Alpine; (2) Sub-Alpine; (3) Lowland; (4) Maritime. Kincardineshire, with its diversified soil and situation and with an elevation reaching over 2000 ft., has representatives of all the four classes. The county as a whole is remarkably rich in the number and the variety of its wild plants, while several spots within it have acquired more than a local reputation as a hunting ground for the botanist. Thus, we have on the coast the well-known St Cyrus braes, where, owing to favourable conditions, a large number of plants occur that are not found in other parts of the. county. Here the volcanic rocks decompose into a light brown soil, extremely suitable for the growth of wild flowers, unless when exposed to continuous drought, which in our climate does not often occur. The exposure of'the rocks, forming cliffs almost 200 ft. high, facing south and east, adds to the warmth afforded by the soil. Here, during the summer, may be seen in abundance the pretty little maiden pink, the prolific rest harrow, bladder campion, viper’s bugloss, bloody crane’s bill, hemp agrimony, common cudweed (the herba impia of old writers), butterbur, marjoram, goat’s beard, red poppy, field peppervvort, soft knotted clover, rough podded yellow vetch, field garlic, wild sweet pea, Nottingham catch-fly, and others.

On the loose sands along the banks of the North Esk and in the salt marshes at its mouth grow the lesser meadow rue, the sea rocket, the thrift or sea pink, the prickly saltwort and other similar plants. Close to the river, on ground liable to be flooded at high tides, may be found sea pearlwort, sandwort spurreys, sea milkwort, jointed glasswort, sea arrow grass, and several varieties of sedges. Grass wrack, one of the few flowering plants of salt water, grows in the mud at the old mouth of the river.

The braes and seashore of Muchalls, though inferior to St Cyrus in number and variety of specimens, are of great interest to botanists. Besides some of the commoner plants already mentioned, Muchalls supplies lamb’s lettuce, sea wormwood, white campion, the lovely oyster plant, and several varieties of worts, willow herbs, vetches and sedges.

Inland, wild flowers abound, especially along the rivers, in the sheltered glens, and on the wooded hills. To mention only a few, we have lung wort, wintergreen, cordalys, v'ood bitter vetch, celery-leaved crowfoot, buckbean or bogbean, water plantain, comfrey ; with such commoner forms as ragged robin, greater and lesser celandine, lady’s bedstraw', knapweed, golden rod, eye-bright, field gentian, forget-me-not, and ground ivy. The Alpine flora includes Alpine lady’s mantle, willow herb, mountain and water avens; and in the bogs and marshy slopes, sundew (Drosera rotundifolia and D. latifolia), very plentiful in Netherley moss, butter-wort, bog orchis, bog violet, and others.

Numerous varieties of the mosses of north-east Scotland occur in Kincardineshire, in the wet and boggy parts by river banks, as at the Burn or along the Dee valley, and at the seaside. Of ferns, beside the common polypody, which is very abundant, we find the beech fern, the graceful oak fern, five varieties of the Aspidia (including the rough Alpine shield and. the close-leaved prickly shield), the bladder fern. Five or six spleen-worts (including the wall rue spleenwort and the sea spleenwort) grow along the cliffs in the south of the county and as far north as Muchalls and Portlethen, where also the black spleenwort has been gathered.

The fauna of Kincardineshire includes the ordinary animals of the country. The fox is not so numerous as he was in the early years of the nineteenth century, when fox hunting, now entirely given up in the shire, was indulged in by some of the county gentlemen. The brown hare has, however, increased very much in numbers, not always to the advantage of the farmer’s crops. The blue or mountain hare is plentiful on the Grampian slopes. Wild rabbits, known only as children’s pets in the county before 1808, abound everywhere. The otter is occasionally seen by the side of the larger streams, but the badger and wild cat are now extinct. Squirrels, unknown in the county a century ago, are now fairly numerous. Roe deer are found in the lower Grampian slopes, and red deer sometimes in the Glen of Dye and elsewhere. Grouse and partridge are numerous, while the heron builds in the high trees by the North Esk and the Bervie, and may be seen feeding in the river pools. The capercailzie has come by Dye and Feugh to Dec.

To the sea birds the cliffs afford a secure retreat and a fitting nursery. The guillemot, credited erroneously with being a stupid bird, asserts his superiority in number over the kittiwakes, tommie-nories, or Greenland parrots, gulls and coots, which inhabit the precipitous ledges of their summer home.

With the increase of woods and other shelter the smaller birds have increased in number. The yellow-hammer, hedge sparrow, chaffinch, stonechat, and other similar birds are everywhere in evidence by the roadsides and fields, while the blackbird, the starling, and the mavis are not averse to sampling the products of the fruit garden in summer or early autumn.

The goldfinch and the siskin are now extremely rare, while the magpie is decreasing in numbers. The ptarmigan is extinct. The golden -eagle is practically extinct, though one or two have been sighted in the hills above Drumtochty. Rare visitants are the quail, snow-bunting, great spotted woodpecker, Bohemian waxwing, little auk, Manx shearwater, hen harrier, peregrine falcon, and common buzzard ; but these can only be regarded as accidental visitors, driven thither by stress of weather or other circumstances.


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