Rare native plants face uphill struggle to survive

A number of rare native plant species are at risk of extinction. Picture: Contributed
A number of rare native plant species are at risk of extinction. Picture: Contributed
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Hillwalkers and estate managers are being asked to join the battle to save a host of fragile and virtually unknown plants that are clinging to a precarious existence on Scotland’s mountains.

These rare native plants, some of which thrive only at the highest altitude and under snow patches that rarely melt, have been here for thousands of years.

From upland mires and springs to the plateaux of the Cairngorms, these arctic alpine flora have adapted to survive in the harshest of conditions.

However, a significant number of species are now at risk of extinction, faced with increasing challenges posed by climate change and man’s ­impact on the landscape.

Now, in an effort to reverse their fortunes, Scottish conservationists are calling for help to safeguard these montane specialist plants for future generations.

Many altitudinous species are delicate and slow-growing. This makes them particularly vulnerable to global warming, pollution, muirburn – the practice of burning off old growth on a heather moor to encourage new growth – and heavy grazing by animals.

Conservation charity Plantlife has produced a new guide offering advice on protecting the unique habitat.

Deborah Long, head of Plantlife Scotland, said: “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.”

She added: “As the climate changes and becomes less predictable, with drier spells and warmer winters, these plants have nowhere left to grow. They are already at the tops of our mountains.”

Walkers are being urged to keep to marked pathways to avoid unwittingly trampling on snow-bed mosses, lichens and other vegetation, and destroying crumbling ground.

Helen Todd, campaigns and policy manager for outdoor charity Ramblers Scotland, said: “Walking in Scotland’s world-famous upland landscapes and enjoying the views from up high is one of life’s great pleasures. It is hugely beneficial to our health and well-being, and walkers also contribute towards supporting rural economies.

“However, with Scottish access rights come responsibilities, and walkers are aware that we shouldn’t cause damage to the very countryside we enjoy.

“Requests to keep to paths when passing through fragile habitat should be followed.”

She also highlighted the need for land managers to ­provide clear advice to walkers – including giving reasons – in order to ensure everyone ­understands why they are ­being asked to amend their ­behaviour.

“This is crucial for gaining the support and compliance of the general public,” she added.

Estate managers are also being asked to end the traditional practice of burning off old growth on heather moors at the highest altitude to avoid destroying the vulnerable plants.

The report also recommends limiting grazing to “natural” levels, as concentrated feeding by deer and sheep can create large expanses of barren ground that are more susceptible to erosion.

A Scottish Gamekeepers ­Association spokesman said: “Rotational muirburn, in accordance with the Muirburn Code, is rarely undertaken at the very highest altitudes, and we understand some grouse moors in the Scottish Borders are already working with Plantlife to benefit plants such as juniper.

“Restricting deer or sheep to natural levels would require guidance on what the group understands as being ‘natural’.

“However, moors and deer areas have been shown to support a wide array of flora and fauna, and land managers are amenable to working in ways as to enhance the biodiversity of the ground.”