Searching for Marsh Saxifrage: Part 4
The final location for this year’s survey was deep up into the Monadhliath Mountains, the large bulk of hill that lies between Loch Ness and Speyside.
Care had to be taken here as we were after the 12th of August which landed us in the grouse shooting season. Consulting with the head keeper, we found that the date we had decided on coincided with a grouse shoot so we decided that it was best if we went out on a day that they weren’t shooting, which we did.
The weather forecast was promising, hinting that there might be a few spots of rain before lunch, but generally dry before the large, wild front rolled in later in the afternoon. We agreed that an early start would be good.
I met up with Michelle, who volunteered for this site, at Carrbridge and we drove over to the nearest spot where we could park the car before making the 450m ascent up into the heights of the Monadhliaths to hunt for a small flush in amongst the wide open bogs.
A track leading up to a windfarm allowed for easy walking, although still requiring some exertion to gain the height. There were some lovely views across the strath as we ascended. The gps that we had eventually indicated that we must leave the easy footfall of the windfarm track and head up across blanket bog.
The map is deceptive as it just shows some little blue icons, belying the reality of thick hummocks and bare peaty hollows, and working around haggs to get to where the moor gently sloped with a number of green flushes in amongst the gorgeous purple heather.
The gps pointed us toward one of the green spots and as we approached yellow speckles appeared in amongst the grass and rushes. Result! Until I got closer and found they were Meadow Buttercup. Disappointment, but when stopped and considered, was in itself a curious thing to be finding at close to 700m altitude in a very exposed location. Most Meadow Buttercups I find tend to grow at lower levels.
Lesser Spearwort was again in evidence, as was the yellow flowers of Tormentil, but there – a lemon yellow, standing tall and straight – the Marsh Saxifrage was present and in flower:
We had hit peak flowering as the flowers had not yet set seed and buds were unfurling. 40-50 flowers in one of the flushes, 15-20 in the other, smaller flush. Again the flowering plants were outnumbered by the non-flowering vegetative shoots. For example, in a section which had three flowers within one metre, I counted about 30 non-flowering shoots.
Red Deer and Mountain Hare were the herbivores that browsed the vegetation, going by the dung around the spot, and indeed a few hares were startled form the thick heather as we were bog-hopping our way up to the spot.
And while looking around for similar looking flushes, we couldn’t find any that were at all similar. Two small isolated patches of damp ground that must support the right water chemistry and hydrology to allow the Marsh Saxifrage to become established. The big question that puzzled us was how the plant got to these isolated and remote spots? None of the locations were close to each other, and at each location only a few spots were suitable to maintain the populations.
So, this year showed that the northern sites surveyed were looking good, except for Loch Ruard as we couldn’t cross the burn to find out what was happening there. But the colonies in the Pentland Hills are more problematic as there was a poor show this year. Next year will be crucial to see if limiting the sheep grazing allows the Marsh Saxifrage to gather its reserves and put forth flowers. Conservation in action to look after one of Europe’s important wildflowers.
Many thanks to our Flora Guardians who experienced exertion, midges, sunshine, damp-feet and wind-blasting, and both disappointment and joy at the small places in the wide landscapes where the yellow Marsh Saxifrage nestles in amongst the green grasses and mosses.