Ben Wyvis IPA

Location: Highlands of Scotland, 25 km north-west of Inverness.

Grid Reference: NH 465 685

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Ben Wyvis might translate as “hill of terror”, but this 3 mile long ridge of mountain summits is clothed in the largest area of woolly fringe-moss in the UK and home to many other wonderful plants that are specially adapted to the cold, arctic conditions.

Lying between the Grampian Mountains and the northern peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland, Ben Wyvis is a remarkable mountain ridge. Many of its features, such as bizarre circles and lines of stones on the ground, formed 11,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age, when intense freezing and thawing moved rocks around and slumped the frost-shattered debris downhill.

Ben Wyvis supports a diverse mosaic of upland habitats from summit heath, lochs, high level springs and flushes to special moss and liverwort-rich snowbeds where snow lies late into the summer. Lower down there is dwarf-shrub heath and blanket bog. This diversity of habitats mean over 170 species of plants have been recorded on Ben Wyvis.

One of the most remarkable botanical features in Britain can be experienced by walking along the summit ridge. Stretching for almost a mile, it feels underfoot like you’re stepping on a luxurious deep-pile carpet.This is the UK’s largest area of woolly fringe-moss, a beautiful species with 2cm long stems clothed in tiny leaves, the tips of which are drawn out into a long, grey hair. This gives the moss a shaggy, woolly appearance and helps protect it from the intense cold. Very little else grows amongst the moss apart from the hard, curving leaves of stiff sedge. In the summer, the soft blanket of moss provides ideal habitat for dotterel – a rare mountain bird - to nest.

Away from the ridge, the high coires provide rocky cliffs, ledges and boulders upon which many specialist arctic-alpine flowers grow. These include alpine wonderful plants like lady’s mantle, moss campion, alpine saxifrage, alpine foxtail, mountain pansy and purple saxifrage. These are found on other mountains in Britain but other treasures here are Scottish specialities, like spiked wood-rush, sibbaldia, chestnut rush and trailing azalea.

Amongst the rocks and bounder screes, ferns like parsley fern, beech fern, northern buckler-fern and rare alpine lady-fern find shelter from the elements, along with dwarf willow that creeps over the surface and rarely reaches more than 5cm tall.

Freshwater lochs are very low in nutrients and their a special community of plants grow like lawns in their clean, clear waters. Most abundant is shoreweed but awlwort and quillwort are also abundant. Occasionally, water lobelia can be found, its beautiful blue flowers rising on tall stems above the water. It’s remarkable to think that such specialist plant of our high mountain lakes is a direct relative of the garden lobelia we grow in hanging baskets and borders.

On the lower slopes the ling (heather) and bell heather and are dotted with alpine bearberry, which turns spectacular reds in autumn. Several other small shrubs grow here, including mountain crowberry, dwarf cornel and dwarf birch, our smallest species of birch with sprawling stems that rarely reach more than a metre high.

Image: Ben Wyvis © Paul Oldham under CC BY-NC 2.0