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Downy and silver birches (Betula pubescens and Betula pendula) are the most common native trees in Scotland. The great swathes of yellow and gold seen throughout the Highlands in autumn are birches. These trees don’t all change color at the same time, which extends the season of autumn glory. Here some downy birches are already golden, whilst others are still mostly green.
The native woodland of the Cairngorms is a mix of Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) and birch, the remains of the Caledonian Forest that was once much more extensive. Scots pine retains its dark green needles year round, but the reddish bark glows in sunlight.
Strathspey is a glaciated landscape. Here, Scots pines cloak a knoll of hard ice-resistant rock above a flat marshy area dotted with birches. Crossing this innocuous looking terrain requires waterproof footwear and careful route finding to keep your feet dry. Soft ground, tiny pools, and little streams are everywhere.
Birches are quite short-lived for trees, most only living 60 to 90 years, though some reach 150. They are pioneer species, rapidly colonizing open ground. Here a fallen dead birch lies on open grassland before scattered downy birch and, on the left, aspen (Populus tremula), a native tree whose leaves turn bright yellow in autumn. Aspen are found throughout the Highlands, but are far less common than birch.
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) is a small native tree found all over the Highlands, sometimes as high as 3,000 feet, far above other trees. In autumn the leaves turn red, but are often quickly stripped off by frost and wind. The brilliant red berries (rowan is in the rose family) last longer, until eaten by birds. I found this solitary leafless rowan on a rise amongst bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), a fern that turns a rusty orange in autumn, in front of a birch wood.
View over Strathspey to the Cromdale Hills with bracken and rough pasture in the foreground, birch woodland in the middle ground and cultivated fields (used for growing hay for winter feed for livestock) and conifer plantations in the background. The golden trees in the conifer forest are mostly larch.
Gnarled old Scots pine frame a view over the fields and woods of Strathspey to the Cromdale Hills, painted with the first snows of winter. The line of trees in the centre of the picture below the hills is a strip of European larch (Larix decidua) and beech (Fagus sylvatica), neither native to the Highlands but both beautiful in autumn.
Wisps of windblown cloud streak the sky above the snow-covered Cromdale Hills. In the foreground, faded yellow grasses stretch out to birches, still holding onto some leaves despite the cold and windy weather, and to dark Scots pines.
Larches are always colorful in autumn, but in 2008 the colors were exceptionally intense and vivid, glowing gold and orange. This is an old larch wood planted on the crest of a gentle hill and only some twenty feet wide, though several hundred yards long. It lies in the former grounds of Castle Grant, a Victorian mansion, and was probably planted to break the skyline view as part of the landscaping of the estate.
The larches rise some 100+ feet above a tangle of boulders and fallen branches. European larch is native to the mountains of central Europe and was introduced into Scotland in the 1600s. Larch has been extensively planted since and has also self-seeded in some areas.
The low afternoon sun lights up the line of larches (sunset is not long after 4:00 p.m. at this time of year). The long shadows are from the raised strips of stubble in front of them, this being the edge of a field used for growing hay, which was harvested many weeks earlier when the larches were still green.
In a narrow cold marshy ravine that sees little sun, outside of summer, patches of the first winter snowfall linger amongst the reeds. Most of the trees have lost their leaves, but one birch still shines gold. In the distance the purple sheen is from the reddish bark of the twigs and the last summer’s new growth on the birches.
Strathspey is a wide valley (which is what strath means) lying in the north of the Cairngorms National Park in the Scottish Highlands. The strath is a mixture of conifer plantations, remnants of natural woodland, marsh, low moorland, rough pasture, and farmed fields, through which the river Spey winds its way and above which rise the high Cairngorms. In autumn the woods of Strathspey are spectacular as the birches, aspens, larches, and rowans turn gold and red. In 2008 the colors were even more impressive than usual, the trees glowing with light and brightness. On several day hikes near my home in the strath, I took these photos of that wonderful autumn.