fieldwork in the Orkney Isles

Leave behind the oystercatchers and curlew in the sheltered bay, and climb steadily. Tread boldly past the red-throated diver on Sandy Loch, doff your hat to the merlin darting through the moorland glen, and keep going west. Most people climbing the Old Postman’s Path across the Isle of Hoy, will only have the Old Man in their sights. But you have another ancient thing to see, another miracle of the natural world, and this one is living. Few will notice it under the towering crags of Grut Fea, but look carefully with a knowing eye, and the miracle of Berriedale Wood will call to you. This is a very special wood – Britain’s most northerly natural woodland.

The Walker’s Route to Rackwick, follows the Old Postman’s Path

Its trees fill the steep-sided burn, almost as if a plasterer filled in the bends and crevices of the Berriedale Burn with a ‘special mix’. None of the trees dare poke their heads about its sheltered sides, as they would be soon tattered by Atlantic westerlies.

There is a fine view from the path that heads to Rackwick, of both this wood and the fragments of another natural wood just to the north. This is a close as most should attempt to get, for deep bog, plus waist-high heather and bracken make gaining access to Berriedale Wood a major undertaking.

almost as if a plasterer filled in the bends and crevices of the Berriedale Burn with a ‘special mix’

Inside the wood, birch and rowan cling to life. Ropes and twines of honeysuckle twist round every tree, acting as nature’s guy-lines. Fungi, ferns, and wood rush clad the woodland floor, and flocks of finches and buntings flit from tree to tree, while a wren is always on hand to issue a warning.

At the top of the wood are magnificent falls, but this special place is best left untrodden.

It is a 4.5km walk from the ferry to the point on the track opposite the site. The first half of that is all uphill on tarmac roads. After that, follow the trail through the glen. The track is rough and often very wet. This is an exposed route, and you should be well prepared for hill walking. Location: 58.8880842, -3.3301036

The Hoy Nature Reserve is owned and managed by the RSPB. 

Berriedale Wood will be one of several hundred sites included in The Forest Guide: Scotland by Gabriel Hemery, published in 2023 by Bloomsbury Wildlife. See: gabhem.com/forest-guide

If you have a favourite wood, use the link above and discover how you can propose a site for inclusion.

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