Searching For Marsh Saxifrage: the Sequel

Alistair Whyte

Alistair Whyte

Head of Plantlife Scotland

5th October 2018


© Michael Scott

Marsh saxifrage (Saxifraga hirculus) is one of our very rare wildflowers, growing in only a handful of locations scattered across Scotland. It is a European protected species, declining and threatened across most of its European range, and Plantlife has been involved in its conservation for a number of years.

Last year we undertook a range of surveys to assess the status of the plant, but some sites were missed due to the terrible weather, and on other sites the flowers didn’t put in an appearance. So this year, we decided to revisit those tricky sites to see how the species is faring.

At Loch Ruard, in Caithness, our hardy volunteers were beaten back in 2017 by torrential rain and washed-away bridges. Phyllida, one of our volunteer surveyors, takes up the story: “This time three of us set out walking in from the A9 road - we were fairly optimistic as it has never been so dry in Caithness. It is about a 4 km walk, but the first part is on a good track and the first hurdle of the river ford was relatively easy. As soon as the track is left behind, the silence of August descends – there being no bird song. We saw red grouse, geese, meadow pipits, a heron and about 100 deer in two groups, but all was quiet. We managed to survey all 3 sites at Loch Ruard – very proud of team.”

The team counted the flowering spikes at each of the Loch Ruard sites. These data will be included in a full report on the monitoring at the end of the season.

Around 200 miles further south, in a remote part of the Pentland Hills, Scottish Natural Heritage have been working with the landowner to install fencing to limit grazing around the key populations of marsh saxifrage. We were keen to see if the fencing was working, after visits last year had showed no flowering spikes. On a very wet September day, Plantlife Scotland staff joined SNH officers to hike out across the moors in search of the plant. After a lot of searching, we were rewarded with an array of flower spikes in one of the exclosures, just past their peak flowering but still very visible. It seems as if the fencing is working, and that the plant is thriving in this remote location.

Next year we will carry on the survey, looking at how land management affects the populations of the saxifrage, and hopefully carrying out counts on some of the even more remote populations.

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