A Walk at Brodgar
submitted by Eric Meek
Starting at the new car park on the east side of the road to the north of the Ring of Brodgar, take the wooden boardwalk that leads towards the road crossing and into the Historic Scotland compound in which the Ring itself stands. By all means, explore the Ring itself but you’ve probably done that lots of times before – instead, I’m going to take you a little further afield!
Head west towards the isolated mound, Salt Knowe, in the north western corner of the compound before finding, a little further to the south, a track between two fences that leads you towards the Loch of Stenness. If you are in the vicinity of the Ring in high summer, you can’t fail but notice the abundance of flowers. This species-rich grassland has been greatly enhanced in recent years by Historic Scotland’s policy of mowing followed by removal of the cuttings, a practice that gradually reduces the nutrient status of the ground and allows beautiful flowering herbs like Cat’s-ear to out-compete aggressive grasses such as Cock’s-foot.
Reaching the shores of the Stenness Loch, you may not be aware that you are looking at the largest saline lagoon in Britain, a fact that has led to its designation as a Special Area of Conservation under European legislation. The loch is tidal, being connected to Scapa Flow via the narrow channel at its south-western extremity that is spanned by the Brig o’ Waithe. During the winter months, its brackish waters attract large numbers of wildfowl, especially diving ducks such as Goldeneyes, Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers that find invertebrate food on its bed. Many Wigeon and Greylag Geese feed around its shores, grazing the rich pastures and finding refuge on the water when disturbed.
All of these species can be seen between October and March as you proceed southwards with the loch shore on your right hand. During spring and summer, you will be accompanied instead by the sound of displaying waders, Oystercatchers, Lapwings, Redshanks and Curlews all creating a cacophony of sound as they set up their territories or protect their eggs or chicks.
In places along this part of the walk, you will notice piles of old grass bales from which nettles are sprouting vigorously. This is not just untidy farming! This is a deliberately created habitat to try to attract back Corncrakes. This type of ‘early cover’ is what Corncrakes require when they arrive back from Africa in spring before grass has grown to a sufficient height to conceal them. In winter, you may also notice a field or two of crops such as Mustard or Rape or Radish. These have been planted along with other species to provide food for small seed-eating birds during the winter and are working really well in this regard. A mixed flock of up to 150 Linnets and Twites together with Reed Buntings usually utilise this food supply while a small party of Snow Buntings may also be present. If you are there in summer and this bird crop is close to the walk, take a closer look at just what plants are there. Ploughing areas like this that often haven’t been ploughed for 20 years or more, awakens dormant seeds and can produce a magnificent array of flowering arable ‘weeds’ such as Heart’s-ease Pansy, Field Pansy and several species of fumitory including the nationally scarce Purple Ramping Fumitory.
Following the loch-side path eventually brings you back to the Brodgar road just north of Brodgar House. From here, the path turns back northwards with the road between you and the Harray Loch. This loch is fresh rather than brackish and although it holds many of the same wintering wildfowl species as Stenness, it is particularly favoured by another diving duck, the Tufted Duck and its close relative, the Pochard. In summer, Fulmars will be gliding on stiff, straight wings along the loch shore while, a little to the north, the offshore islands in the loch hold a large colony of Black-headed Gulls with, sometimes, small numbers of Arctic Terns and Common Terns alongside them.
The path leads you back to the Ring from where you can once again cross the road and make your way back to the carpark. The whole walk can be easily done in an hour and is more or less flat and without obstacles or stiles. However, if you are at all interested in natural history, I would allow at least a couple of hours to do it because I can guarantee that you will find so much of interest to stop and watch!