(Text courtesy of Dumfries & Galloway Environmental Records Centre - www.dgerc.org.uk)
Forest and woodland make up one quarter of Dumfries and Galloway’s land area in a wide variety of habitats, from ancient woodlands of broadleaved trees to extensive modern conifer forests, and from mixed woodlands planted around 18th-century stately homes to wood and scrub pastures still grazed by livestock. Broadleaved woodlands have characteristic plants on the woodland floor such as bluebells, primroses, snowdrops and wild garlic. Butterflies and moths may be seen in the summer while mushrooms and toadstools are found particularly in autumn (much to a forager’s delight. Woodpeckers and buzzards are seen (or heard) all year round, but in the summer are joined by migratory birds such as pied flycatchers, tree pipits, redstarts and warblers. Siskins and crossbills are found in conifer forests and the mysterious churring call of the nightjar can be heard at dusk in areas of young plantation. Deer and bats are best spotted at dawn or dusk, but red squirrels, of which there is still a healthy population, might be seen in many of the region’s woodlands at any time of day.
Dumfries and Galloway’s coastline stretches for over 200 miles and is one of the most varied and scenic in Britain. Wide expanses of mudflats and merse (saltmarsh) in the inner Solway give way to rocky coast in the west and, beyond, spectacular cliffs and headlands, notably at The Mull of Galloway, Scotland’s most southerly point. Plants have adapted to grow in difficult conditions, with sea aster and sea spurrey found in the merse, and sea campion, thrift and western gorse on the slopes and cliffs. The cliffs are also home to nesting seabirds: raucous summer colonies of cormorants, razorbills and guillemots. Black guillemots (known as ‘tysties’) can sometimes be seen at close hand in the west coast harbours. It is in winter, though, that the region hosts its most spectacular display of birds, with the entire population of Svalbard barnacle geese flying in to the eastern shores, particularly at Caerlaverock. Huge flocks of migrant waterbirds roost and feed on the merse, while dunlin and oystercatchers can be seen at many places along the coast.
The nationally rare Natterjack toad is found along the inner Solway, with colonies here accounting for somewhere between 11% and 23% of the total UK population. It is an offence to touch them according to UK and European law. Although mostly nocturnal, they can also be spotted on dull days and if you’re here during the breeding season between April and June, listen out for the call of the males, a rasping croak of rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrRup rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrRup which on a still night can be heard over a mile away.
Look out for seals, dolphins and porpoises which are present all year round or, in the summer, if you’re lucky you might spot a magnificent basking shark feeding in the plankton-rich waters.
Around one sixth of the region is covered by uplands, ranging from the rounded Moffat Hills in the east to the rugged granite hills of Merrick in the west. Moorland is dominated by heather, which in late summer turns the landscape purple and among which grow other shrubs such as blaeberry (or bilberry to non-Scots) and cowberry, and flowers including heath-spotted orchid and the scarcer lesser twayblade. Other upland areas consist of rough grassland, the tussocky purple moorgrass punctuated by delicate flowers such as tormentil, milkwort and heath bedstraw. In some places large expanses of bracken carpet the hills, turning rusty red in autumn. Wetter areas may support blanket bog, a globally restricted habitat for which Scotland is very important.
Red deer, mountain hare and grouse can be seen in the hills, as can birds of prey such as hen harriers, merlins and peregrines. On a small scale, the large heath butterfly is a specialist of damp heathlands, while migrant species such as the painted lady might be seen in summer. Hairy moth caterpillars and dragonflies such as the Common Hawker also make an appearance.
The region’s freshwater lochs are generally quite small but are wildlife havens supporting a wide variety of plants, birds and animals. Around the edges of lochs you might find marsh and reedbeds or thick fringes of trees such as alder and willow. Dragonflies and damselflies dart across the water, as do swallows and martins in summer.
In the far west, Loch Ryan is Scotland’s most southerly sea loch and supports many marine plants and animals found at few other places in the country. In winter it’s also important for wild birds such as red-throated diver, grebes and Scaup.
The region has five main rivers which are, from east to west, the Esk, Annan, Nith, Dee and Cree. Starting as small, fast-flowing burns in the uplands, they develop into wider courses which empty in the Solway. The water quality is excellent and sustains insect and fish populations. Salmon are found in all of the main rivers as well as in some of the burns. Grey herons, kingfishers, grey wagtails and the delightful dipper are among the common bird species along the waterways. Mammals are more elusive, but otters and water voles can still be spotted, the latter most likely to be in the slow-flowing burns around Galloway Forest Park.