Just a couple of miles up the road from the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Gateway Centre that I described in the last blog (build budget £3m, I believe) is the gateway to the mainland section of Loch Lomond National Nature Reserve (NNR). In case you're not familiar with the term NNR, let me quote Scottish Natural Heritage, which designates and manages them: 'the key purpose of National Nature Reserves is to showcase some of the best wildlife in Scotland for everyone to see and appreciate. This purpose is unique and distinguishes National Nature Reserves from other protected areas.'
I saw no signage to Loch Lomond NNR from the road here. Nor could I see any in the local village hall car park that serves the NNR. There is a small wooden fingerpost at the gate to a muddy field next to the village hall that says 'Aber Path' - which, if you are initiated, is the route you need to take to get to the Reserve. And to be fair there is a small leaflet dispenser with brochures describing the route by the gate.
We walked down the sloping pasture, past a few inquisitive bullocks, sometimes sinking ankle deep in cattle-poached mud. Someone - the farmer or perhaps a Park ranger - had thoughtfully laid some railway sleepers over a particularly glutinous patch, though one now lurched at an angle, requiring some tricky footwork to cross dryshod. We were fine as we came prepared with wellies and waterproofs - it's not a route for trainers. There's very little waymarking - without the leaflet and some local knowledge we'd easily have lost the way. But we eventually came to the Reserve entrance - where there was, at last, an NNR monolith and a small interpretation board.
It's a glorious place. The narrow path winds its way through the woodland fringes of the loch. Oak at first, grading to alder, birch, holly and ash as you move east. The light followed suit, paling from a warm, golden glow under the autumn-yellowed oaks to a cool green haze below the hollies and birches. A jay shot out of the trees ahead of us, a vulgar cackle belying the tasteful pastels of its blue and pink plumage. Not a bird you see that often in Scotland, thanks to the shortage of oak woodland - acorns are its food of choice - but common enough around Loch Lomond. We saw three during the morning.
We could also see a lone great crested grebe floating some way off in the loch - another Scottish scarcity - especially in inland waters. At the last count just 1500 overwintered in Scotland, with most keeping to the estuaries of the Forth and Clyde. I took them for granted when I lived down south. Now I see them for the exotic, elegant birds they really are, with their long, sinuous necks and subtle, mocha headdresses.
As the path emerges from the woods the full drama of the view unfolds as you look north along the length of Loch Lomond over its wooded islands to the mountains of the Highland Boundary Fault. To the east there are the broad, ochre wetlands at the mouth of the Endrick Water, home to rare species like Greenland white-fronted geese, brook lampreys and Scottish dock (none of which we saw, sadly). The route on the map ends at the Endrick Viewpoint, but we continued on a rougher path along a bund at the edge of the wetland.
It was hard to square this watery, tawny, wide-open sky landscape with the woodlands and mountains with which Loch Lomond is synonymous. Much of the path was a few inches underwater, increasing the feeling that we were in, rather than on, the Reserve. Waist-high (what I took to be) reeds (but was told were actually grasses) on either side hissed and whistled in the slight breeze, reminding me of walks through East Anglian reedbeds. No marsh harriers here, but we found snipe and woodcock, reed bunting and mallard, long-tailed tits and wrens.
At the end of the bund we had to pick our way, pathless, though wet woodland, over barbed wire fences and through more muddy fields before we found our way back to the village. We saw no-one else during our walk around this beautiful NNR, which indeed boasts some of the best wildlife in Scotland.
I wonder what the budget for this gateway is?