Cairngorms Connect plant the seeds of change for montane scrub

High up in the corries of the Cairngorm plateau, two climbers are perched on a ledge.  They’re not here for fun or adventure, though the exposed nature does add those elements, but rather to collect tree cuttings.  These ecologists are helping to expand some of the natural forest cover which has been depleted in this area, aided by funding from the Endangered Landscapes Programme. 

Abernethy Forest. Photo credit: James Shooter / scotlandbigpicture.com

Montane scrub is an important habitat which, when given the chance, grows quite happily above what we would normally term the ‘treeline’.  It is a diverse mix of willow, dwarf birch, and juniper species – interspersed with the odd stunted pine and rowan – which hosts a range of different invertebrates and alpine species.  The willow species they are seeking cling to precarious ledges in small enclaves, having become restricted by historical overgrazing and burning practices. 

In Glenfeshie, Loch Avon and the Allt Mullach, situated within the Cairngorms Connect project area, the poor soil quality and exposed conditions mean that willows grow slowly. Populations have been in decline for many years; these species struggle to reproduce as the male and female flowers are on separate plants, which are now geographically remote from their nearest individual of the opposite sex. 

Thankfully, these montane shrubs of willow and birch are now getting a second chance at survival. Delicate cuttings have been transported to a specially created tree nursery in Abernethy Forest where their original location, species, sex and condition are all checked and recorded before they are planted.

Left: Willow Survey at Loch Avon. Photo credit: Will Boyd Wallis.
Right: Salix phylicifolia tea-leaved willow) in Abernethy Tree Nursery. Photo credit: Steve Blow / Cairngorms Connect.

The growth of these montane plants could provide the first viable offspring these individual plants may have had for decades.  With the help of Royal Botanical Gardens Edinburgh, analysis of the montane shrub leaf will determine the genetic diversity of these populations, ensuring a varied gene pool for the future of the species.

A crucial element of the recovery of these scrub communities is targeted deer control to reduce browsing pressure, with recent evidence at Glenfeshie of natural regeneration of montane willows taking place as a result of lower deer numbers.  This is also reinforced with evidence from Norway, where with less grazing these scrub habitats are flourishing. 

Currently there are over 260 of these cuttings in the nursery which will provide further cuttings and seed for thousands of trees a year to be transplanted to high altitude areas.  All this work is part of the aims of Cairngorms Connect, a partnership of land managers who are committed to restoring habitats in the area, made possible by funding from the Endangered Landscapes Programme.  These trees will bolster smaller populations that already exist, improving genetic diversity and help extend the woodland margin. 

Willow near Oyuvsbu, Norway with less grazing pressure than Scotland. Photo credit: Steve Blow / Cairngorms Connect.

Steve Blow, Delivery Manager for the project said: “these cuttings will allow us to plant fairly large, dense patches of this rare habitat, both to expand the remaining community and to provide a more diverse gene-pool of plants which will result in seed production and natural regeneration”. 

As the UK government Committee on Climate Change advised that woodland coverage in the UK should increase from 13% to 17%, this programme of habitat restoration is ensuring the survival of montane species and reinstating the natural altitudinal succession of the native woodland.

Find out more about the Cairngorms Connect project here.