For more information about wildlife in the area please visit:
Dumfries & Galloway Environmental Resources Centre
Red Squirrels in South Scotland
Scottish Natural Heritage
Black Grouse UK
Scottish Wildlife Trust
National Trust for Scotland
Wildlife at Cairnhead
Long ago, Cairnhead was covered in native woodland – trees such as rowan, birch and aspen, and some oak. Then, when the land was cleared for grazing, it became grassland and moorland. Gradually, however, sheep farming became less profitable, and by the 1930s the push to plant for timber meant that the rough grassland was replaced by a new habitat: coniferous woodland. Cairnhead Forest was originally established as a plantation of a single species – Sitka spruce. It lies at the head of a glen that extends from just north of the disused steading at the head of the glen to the village of Moniaive at its south end.
The burn flowing through the glen has remained largely unchanged for centuries. The clear waters of Dalwhat Water and the numerous small burns and ditches feeding it from the hills support an enormous variety of insect life. Keep a look out, in summer, for damselflies and the golden-ringed dragonfly, mayflies and caddis flies.
Because of the high quality of its water, Dalwhat Water itself provides an important nursery habitat for Atlantic salmon. The adult salmon swim up the river Nith and the river Cairn to reach Dalwhat Water during late autumn/early winter. There they lay their eggs in gravel nests known as ‘redds’. After the eggs laid here have hatched, juvenile salmon remain in the burn for two to three years before migrating to sea.
Dotted through the forest are patches of broad-leaved trees, some small areas of ancient woodland and a number of clearings. In spite of the fact that this plantation was originally established for timber production, with little thought for the needs of wildlife, there is much to see here. In common with other forests in Dumfries & Galloway, Cairnhead has proved a welcome refuge for red squirrels whose numbers have actually increased in this area. Unlike their grey cousins, which feed on larger seeds such as acorns and beechmasts, red squirrels are quite happy to forage for food among small-seeded coniferous trees. Small birds such as the coal tit, siskin and crossbill all make their homes here and are relatively easy to see.
Red deer and roe deer roam through the forest, and birds more usually seen in deciduous woodland, including song thrushes, goldcrests and chaffinches, frequent areas of mature trees. Several birds of prey have increased significantly in number around Cairnhead: goshawks, which are swift and agile flyers, navigate their way effortlessly into areas of mature trees in the forest, the more remote the better; short-eared owls prefer the young plantations, where they can nest and raise their young on the ground, and easily move in and out of the cover afforded by trees; and barn owls, which hunt over meadow and grassland, are drawn to the valley bottoms where they nest in abandoned farm buildings and bothies.
Birds associated with open scrub such as whinchats, stone chats and meadow pipits make use of the open areas on the hilltops above the forest, whilst ravens nest on craggy outcrops and soar above the glen.