24th June 2010: day three of my Scottish fieldwork campaign was to be a change from surveying for saproxylic beetles in woodland. I was headed to the summit plateau of Ruadh-stac Mòr, Beinn Eighe where Mike Morris (1970) discovered the leaf-beetle Phratora polaris new to Britain in 1966. Ruadh-stac Mòr lies within the massive (5,800 hectares) Torridon Forest SSSI.
I had picked a day with a dry forecast but normal weather forecasts don’t apply in the mountains. I set off walking at 07.35 and it started raining 10 minutes later. Within another 40 minutes, I was out of mobile signal for the rest of the day. After a couple of hours of slog, I entered the fearsome Coire Mhic Fhearchair and picked my way across to the steep scree fan in the far corner, passing a few mangled bits of plane wreckage where some poor aviator met his doom. The scree was treacherous underfoot and I was ascending into cloud, with worsening rain and an increasingly strong wind. At the top of the scree, the route steepens into a narrow chute of shattered rocks, exposed and channelling a wicked gusting wind. No place to miss your footing. Step by careful step I got to the top. But there was no relief there – I found myself on a knife-edge ridge in ferocious gusting wind and driving rain. On hands and knees I found a cleft in a boulder and wedged myself half in. Put some dry layers on and decided I’d better abandon the survey and descend. But actually couldn’t face the chute again straight away so I decided to stroll up towards the summit plateau for a bit of respite before beginning my descent. Conditions had worsened further and I was soon reduced to lying full-stretch on the ridge-top path, clinging to the ground and holding my rain-spattered specs on to my face. I realised the ridge had broadened out and I could safely drop off the path to the leeward side, where I could get about in a crouch rather than a crawl.
I soon realised I was treading on quality turf: dolomitic limestone grassland with Racomitrium moss, Sibbaldia Sibbaldia procumbens, Dwarf Cudweed Gnaphalium supinum and, more importantly, some patches of Dwarf Willow Salix herbacea, the foodplant of Phratora polaris. I found fragments of a dead Phratora polaris under the first stone I lifted, and a live one under the third stone. Flushed with success I carried out a standard 30-minute timed search but didn’t see any more of the leaf-beetles. All I saw were three Oreostiba tibialis (Staphylinidae), a common species of montane habitats, and one Patrobus septentrionis (Carabidae), found feeding on a pill-beetle Byrrhus fasciatus (Byrrhidae).
Phratora polaris was added to the British list (under the former generic name Phyllodecta) by Morris (1970) on the basis of specimens he found near the summit of Ruadh-stac Mòr, Beinn Eighe in 1966 and 1967. Morris (1970) also reported a specimen collected by A.M. Easton near the summit of Tom a’ Chòinich, Inverness-shire in 1968. Owen (1983) added two further sites in 1981: Sgurr Mor and An Teallach, both Wester Ross. Lyszkowski (1988) found the species in 1984 some 60 miles to the south of these sites near the summit of Beinn Achaladair, Argyllshire. Cox (2007) was able to map the species from 9 Scottish 10-km squares of the national grid and commented that the species is “probably under-recorded”. Quite frankly, it’s no wonder!
Once I’d made it down to the bottom of the scree, I found some shelter from the dreadful weather and took a break. Astonishingly, a Mountain Bumblebee Bombus monticola flew past my nook as though it were just a normal summer’s day. I was also filled with respect for the elderly Munro-bagger I passed on my way down – he was heading up in shorts!
These observations were made during SSSI condition monitoring work for Scottish Natural Heritage.
Cox, M.L. (2007). Atlas of the seed and leaf beetles of Britain and Ireland (Coleoptera: Bruchidae, Chrysomelidae, Megalopodidae and Orsodacnidae). Pisces, Newbury.
Lyszkowski, R.M. (1988). Phyllodecta polaris Schneider (Col., Chrysomelidae) in Argyllshire. Entomologist’s monthly magazine, 124, 71.
Morris, M.G. (1970). Phyllodecta polaris Schneider (Col., Chrysomelidae) new to the British Isles from Wester Ross and Inverness-shire, Scotland. Entomologist’s monthly magazine, 106, 48 – 53.
Owen, J.A. (1983). More about Phyllodecta polaris Schneider (Col., Chrysomelidae) in Britain. Entomologist’s monthly magazine, 119, 191.
Owen, J.A. (1988). A note on the life history of Phyllodecta polaris Schneider (Col.: Chrysomelidae). Entomologist’s record and journal of variation, 100, 91 – 92.