Location and Access
The aptly named Big Wood (NS 515 75), known locally as “The Bluebell Planting” is about 24 km from Ayr just east of Galston on the A71 next to Loudoun Golf Course. The wood is privately owned, but is managed by East Ayrshire Woodlands who have a 25 year management agreement allowing public access. Parking is available in the lay-by at Hags Bridge (NS 517 71) off the A71. A well defined track (which is also a public Right Of Way) starts just beside the lay-by and runs up through the site to Woodhead Farm. Walking up the track gives excellent views of the varied habitat and of some of the magnificent specimen trees in the wood, there is also plenty of scope to do a little exploring off the beaten track, but please observe any “private property” signs you come across.
A productive circular walk can be had by turning right when you reach Woodhead Farm and following the unclassified road back down to the A71. If you choose to do this please be aware of the following information! Assuming that you are driving and have parked in the lay-by at Hag Bridge you will naturally want to get back to your vehicle: this requires caution and nifty footwork. When you get back to the main road you have to cross over to reach the pavement on the other side, this is not too bad as the road here is close to a 0 MPH zone and the traffic is relatively slow. However, at the point where you cross back to reach the lay-by you could be forgiven for thinking that you have ended up on a Formula One race track by mistake! Appropriate caution should definitely be exercised here unless you fancy being known as “The Flat Birder”. Walking on the verge facing oncoming traffic is only for maniacs and those tired of life!
Unsurfaced muddy tracks with cobbles, steep section up from road.
Access along the A71 is not recommended. Instead, approach via byways to the north from Newmilns or Kilmarnock.
Big Wood is the site of an ancient woodland which has been extensively managed in the past. As part of Loudoun Castle Estate the woods were replanted in the late 19th and early 20th Century as a designed landscape, this accounts for many of the mature specimen trees which are in the woods today. The woods are largely comprised of Oak, Beech, Elm and Ash with a good under-storey of Hazel, Elder, Rowan and Holly. In spring the wood is carpeted with Bluebells, making this a particularly attractive time to visit, there is also a great variety of plants and wildflowers to be found right through the summer.
A spring or early summer visit is also likely to be the most rewarding in terms of bird life. Spotted Flycatcher, Blackcap, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and Garden Warbler can all be found and Wood Warbler is a strong possibility. Species which can be seen all year round include: Jay, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Sparrowhawk, Treecreeper, Long-tailed Tit, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush and Bullfinch. Other birds which the habitat seems right for are Woodcock and Brambling so an autumn or winter visit to the site might also be worthwhile. The surrounding fields which can be viewed from some points on the track and also from the road next to Woodhead Farm have breeding Oystercatcher and Lapwing as well as lots of Pheasant and Rook. The hedgerows around the site are all fairly intact and are quite species rich so would be good places to look for Yellowhammer, Greenfinch and House Sparrow.
Additionally, if you choose to walk down the road from the farm there is a small area of woodland on the left, just behind Newmilns fire station which has recently been planted up with native trees. There is open access to this area and a visit might just add a few more birds to your day list. To introduce even more variety to the proceedings, cross over the A71 and have a look along the banks of the River Irvine. There is a Sand Martin colony nearby and summer also brings Common Sandpiper to the exposed shingle spits in the river. Grey Wagtail, Dipper and Kingfisher as well as the occasional Otter have all been seen on this stretch of The Irvine.
A visit to Big Wood could be combined with other Irvine Valley sites such as Loudoun Hill and East Holmes Marsh making an interesting day’s birding in a variety of habitats. Nearby the town of Galston offers a reasonable choice of places for a bite to eat, try The Wee Train at 22 Wallace Street for a bar lunch or the Balmoral Knitwear Tea-room on Polwarth Street for a quiet cuppa and a cake. Also worthy of a mention for those with an interest in rocks, fossils and shiny things is the Lotus Crystals shop at 1 Polwarth Street, it’s worth going in just to have a look at the incredible geological displays!
Happily the Galston area is on a bus route with a regular service for anyone not keen on driving to bird watching sites. Buses to Galston, Newmilns and Darvel run every 20 minutes from Kilmarnock bus station. Services 1 and 2 both go as far as Galston, while Service 2 carries on to Newmilns and Darvel.
There are is a slightly reduced service on a Sunday, for further details contact Stagecoach on 01563 525192 or Traveline on 0870 608 2068. For Big Wood, get off near the Co-op supermarket and walk east along past the golf course. Cycling is a good way of getting around the Irvine Valley sites but the A71 is definitely best avoided, take an OS map and stick to the network of back roads instead!