In January the Hebrides can live up to their reputation of being cold, wet and very windy, so before cabin-fever sets in, as soon as the rain stops and the wind strength drops to blustery, it’s time to get out for a walk. Actually it’s more like a waddle with a full set of thermals, the thickest jumper I can find, a full set of waterproofs, wellies, etc., a rucksack and pocket stuffed with collecting apparatus, an elegant stride is not really possible.
After a storm you never quite know what is going to appear, it could be anything from a beached leviathan or more likely a seal (hopefully not to smelly) and tons of seaweed to something as mundane as a fish box or as romantic as a message in a bottle. On our beach what we really hope to find is driftwood. I’m not too fussy about size, anything from odds and ends for kindling to full size tree trunks for logs. Himself gets really excited about the pieces which are too big to be moved, as this means getting the chainsaw and various accoutrements (splitting wedges, sledge and lump hammers) down to the beach. I have no ambition to become an apprentice lumberjack so I’m quite happy to be the sherpa and carry the logs from the beach to the car.
The wood is mainly pine, but sometimes it can be rather more exotic – eucalyptus or redwood. If it has been in the water for a considerable amount of time it has gained its own flora and fauna, so before it is turned into firewood, scientific curiosity has to be satisfied and any interesting bits and pieces carefully removed for later examination. Most of the time the attached fauna are goose barnacles and whether fresh or slightly decaying they are incredibly difficult to scrape off, highly gelatinous, slimy and very smelly. Carrying logs with bits of barnacle adhering is not at all pleasant and the wood is stored outside the shed for as long as possible.
Splitting the logs can also reveal some equally slimy and smelly inhabitants. These are usually big-ear shipworms (Psiloteredo megotara), except that they are not worms but marine bivalve molluscs (like the inappropriately named goose barnacles). The shell is very reduced and used to bore through the wood, so all you see is the muscular tube-like body, or more often just the burrow in the wood.
They enter the wood as very small larvae, so from the outside all you see is a very small hole, but internally the burrow can be up to 20cm long and 10-12mm in diameter. This particular species is found in driftwood and is related to the notorious naval shipworm which bored its way, often with disastrous results, through wooden ships and the Dutch sea defences in the 16th century.
There are, are of course, some more interesting edible species to find on the beach, but in winter, unless you’re partial to whelks, winkles or limpets, it is a case of being grateful for some firewood and assorted natural history curiosities.