Easter Ross Railway Stations – The floral story of 19 years

I would not normally recommend a visit to Waverley Station in Edinburgh to the plant enthusiast and, since the passing of the days of steam, railway interest has declined for many. However, some of our rural stations may tell a different story.

The Far North Line from Inverness to Wick and the line to Kyle of Lochalsh are some of our great railway journeys and I would strongly recommend as visit to those who are not acquainted with them. They are also not without botanical interest.

Fig. 1. Part of the Scotrail network in the Highland Region of Scotland (Ross and Cromarty)

When we bought a flat by Fearn station in 1999 (still a working station) we became aware of the flora on our doorstep. My attention soon spread to other stations on these lines and the present study reports my observations of the 12 stations in the Vice-County of Easter Ross (VC106). These are Muir of Ord, Dingwall, Alness, Invergordon, Fearn , Tain, Ardgay, Culrain, Garve, Lochluichart, Achanalt and Achnasheen (Conon Bridge is excluded because it opened after the start of the study).

Fig. 2. Fearn platform in 2008 (left) and how it looks now (right). Wild flowers have lost much of their habitat. Note the excitement as a steam train approaches.

Mainly in 2001, I visited the 12 stations on two occasions in the summer months, noting all vascular plants that did not appear to have been planted in the accessible parts of the stations such as platforms, car parks and disused goods yards.

In 2020 I repeated the process. In the meantime, Network Rail had taken over station management and there was an increased use of herbicides and clearing of vegetation. Some old goods areas were no longer accessible because of re-development and there were usually daily visits from maintenance staff.

In 2001 654 records were made of 186 plant species, the commonest being Holcus lanatus (Yorkshire Fog) and Chamerion angustifolium (Rosebay). The station platforms, car parks and yards often displayed a blaze of colour in the summer months.

Fig. 3. Dactylorhiza purpurella (Northern Marsh Orchid) and Crassula tillaea (Mossy Stonecrop) are among the species found.

 In 2020 349 records were made including 114 species, the commonest being Chamerion angustifolium and Epilobium montanum (Broad-leaved Willowherb).  18 new species were noted in 2020 including Sagina apetala, Cerastium glomeratum and Epilobium ciliatum. 107 of the 2001 species were not recorded again in 2020, including Calystegia sepium, Deschampsia flexuosa and Elytrigia repens and others showed steep declines. There was still botanical interest but less than in the past. There are some cultivated flower beds but these do not make up for the loss of wild flowers.

 Six stations were in small towns or villages of more than 500 inhabitants and 6 in less populated places often with only a few houses. There were 81 species in the more urban sites and 85 in the more rural, thus showing little difference in the totals, although only 33 species were recorded in both station groups. In contrast to other urban/rural comparison there was no preponderance of alien (neophyte) species in the urban settings. This may reflect the artificial nature of these places.

YearRecordsSpeciesSpecies in both 2001 and 2020

Some new Vice-County records have been made on railway stations in the last few years, including Orobanche minor (Common Broomrape) at Fearn station and Crassula tillaea (Mossy Stonecrop) at Invergordon and Dingwall stations (the latter has also spread elsewhere.). The first recent records in Easter Ross for Trifolium arvense (Hare’s-foot Clover) and Sherardia arvensis (Field Madder) were also made on railway stations.

Fig 4. Invergordon station goods yard, no longer in use. Here is the link for railway history enthusiasts: https://www.railscot.co.uk/locations/I/Invergordon/

It is probably not surprising that the biodiversity has declined on these railway stations, given the nature of these artificial habitats and the widespread urge to “tidy up”. However, the loss is to be regretted and site managers should be encouraged to leave some areas that are less intensively tended. I plan to keep these stations under review.

Other wildlife was not assessed but there may have been similar trends over the years. Certainly, Fearn station is still home to bats, House Martins in summer and is visited by many other bird species. Moth trapping still produces a variety of species.

by Brian Ballinger

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