Cairngorm Mountains

Forming perhaps the wildest tract of untamed country in these isles, the Cairngorms plateau has the largest area of ground above 900 metres in the UK. Their height and distance from the sea results in exceptionally low winter temperatures, encouraging the most arctic-alpine type of vegetation found anywhere in the UK.

These mountains are home to extensive tracts of arctic-alpine plant communities, with fantastic lichen-rich heaths, snow bed communities and montane bogs. The artic-alpine flora is outstanding, with Alpine Sow Thistle (Cicerbita alpina), Trailing Azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens) and Alpine Milk-vetch (Astragalus alpinus) amongst many others. It’s not surprising that these internationally significant plants and habitats are recognised as the Cairngorms Important Plant Area.

The biggest and most obvious threat to these high mountain communities is climate change. As temperatures rise, the available area in which these plants can grow becomes increasingly restricted. Worryingly, many can’t move upwards or further north: they are often on the very edge of their range. In addition, high deer numbers means that many grazing sensitive species are now found only on inaccessible ledges, while muirburn (heather management by burning) can be disastrous for these slow-growing plants.

Our new Cairngorms Important Plant Area Project - covering both arctic-alpine flora and Caledonian pinewood – aims to secure the future of these habitats.

Our goals:

  • Provide advice and demonstrate plant conservation management techniques to 80 land managers covering at least 65,000 hectares.
  • Develop a new network of volunteers to monitor sites where rare and threatened plants grow, enabling any changes in management to be made.
  • Train mountain leaders, park rangers and volunteer ambassadors to develop their knowledge of mountain flora and folklore so they in turn can enthuse visitors.
  • Provide a range of plant identification keys and self-led walk guides so people can discover the wild plants of the Cairngorms.

Under threat:

Alpine Blue-sow-thistle (Cicerbita alpina)

Unlike many arctic-alpine plants that hunker down out of the wind, this is a tall and leafy perennial that grows on sheltered mountain ledges. Even out of the worst of the weather, it often gets a bit battered and bruised by the wind. Flowering from July to September with heads of deep blue-violet flowers, one large colony was known by local climbers as ‘the potato patch’. Photo (c) Orchi under Creative Commons Licence.

Alpine Milk-vetch (Astragalus alpinus)

One of our rarest arctic-alpine flowers, this small, spreading perennial is know from just four sites in the Scottish Highlands. However, it often seems really happy where it grows, with one patch at one site consisting of over 10,000 plants and covering an area of 120 x 30 metres. Photo (c) Antti Bilund under Creative Commons Licence.

Trailing Azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens)

This ground hugging shrub grows on the most exposed, wind-swept hill tops and ridges, where show cover is blown away and the plant can freeze and dry out. Despite this, its dense tangle of creeping stems mean temperatures inside each cushion can be 10 degrees warmer than outside. Photo (c) Arnstein Rønning under Creative Commons Licence.

How's it going?


A new guide on to how to manage arctic-alpine plants is launched on International Mountain Day.


Funding is secured from LEADER for a new Cairngorms Important Plant Area Project, which will help conserve arctic-alpine plants and those of the Caledonian pine forests [Link to that webpage].

Who are we working with?

LEADER (funder)

Cairngorms National Park Authority (funder)

Scottish Natural Heritage

Glenmoor Lodge

Mountain Training Association

Glen Tanar Estate