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At the height of beauty

Saving Scotland's mountain plants

December 11 2015

Some of Scotland's most iconic habitats are found in the mountains. Caught between the warm and wet weather from the Atlantic and the cold dry weather from Europe, these mountains are home to a unique community of plants - the arctic-alpines - with species characteristic of European alpine mountains growing alongside others from arctic Scandinavia. But a significant number of these species are in decline, faced with challenges such as climate change and unsuitable land management. On International Mountain Day, Plantlife Scotland is publishing some new management advice, aimed at ensuring that future generations can enjoy these special mountain plants.

From the upland mires and springs where plants like starry saxifrage grow to the alpine plateaux of the Cairngorms where mosses and liverworts carpet the ground, these arctic-alpine communities have adapted to survive the harshest of living conditions. These plant communities have existed here for thousands of years, and owe their existence to the combined natural effects of climate, aspect and soil chemistry rather than to any land management. 

Many of the species that live here, such as Sibbaldia, moss campion, mountain azalea (above, left - © Laurie Campbellare rare, fragile and slow-growing. They are robust enough to survive the harsh conditions, which at the same time, keeps down competition from quicker growing plants that thrive at lower altitudes. But these slow growing species are at risk from a number of factors including climate and management...

Key threats facing Scottish arctic-alpine plant communities:

  • Burning
    Muirburn is the traditional practice of burning off old growth on a heather moor to encourage new growth for grazing and red grouse. At high altitudes the severe climate restricts the growth of shrubs and fire destroys these plant communities. They should never be burnt.
  • Grazing
    These plant communities are adapted to grazing. The right level of grazing keeps down competition from shrubs and grasses and creates micro open habitats for mosses and lichens to colonise. However, heavy grazing creates too much bare ground, which these slow growing species cannot fill. This leads to erosion, which at high altitudes can be severe and exacerbated by low temperatures and high rainfall. 
  • Changing weather conditions
    As the climate changes and becomes less predictable, with drier spells and warmer winters, these plants have no where left to grow. They are already at the tops of our mountains. 
  • Atmospheric pollution
    Surprisingly, pollution can still  reach our  mountain tops. Nitrogen from car fumes drifts high above the glens and is a particular problem in Spring, when the snow melts with an influx of nitrogen into mountain soils and water systems.

Deborah Long, Head of Plantlife Scotland, says "These high-altitude Scottish specialist plants are part of our mountain heritage. With climate change, they need, more than ever, the sort of land management that creates and maintains a habitat where they can survive and thrive - What they actually need most is a kind of benign neglect, where there is no burning and a bit of grazing.

The Scottish public can also help: we require more data on how these plant communities are doing. You can help by taking part in the National Plant Monitoring Survey next year and by visiting a mountain area every year to keep track of how mountain species like blaeberry, ling cowberry and mossy saxifrage are doing."

To download Plantlife Scotland's management leaflet please visit here