Location: East of the A9 Perth - Inverness road, south east of Aviemore.
Grid Reference: NJ 004 013
The vast mountains of the Cairngorms offers the closest environment we can get to arctic, alpine, tundra and boreal conditions in Britain. Unique plants and habitats inhabit the rocky, wind-basted peaks, while the valleys of the rivers Spey and Dee provide softer landscapes teaming with wildlife.The spectacular snow-covered peaks and plateaus of the Cairngorms form the largest area of mountains in the British Isles, covering over 300 square miles and with four summits over 4,000 feet (1,220 metres). Their low winter temperatures encourage some of the most arctic type of vegetation anywhere in the UK, with unique species and habitats. The sheer scale of this landscape makes it difficult to describe, and it certainly rewards extra time spent exploring.
On the high mountain tops are found the most extensive areas of acidic arctic-boreal heaths in Britain, with ling (heather), reindeer lichen, cloudberry and bearberry, along with unusual patches of trailing azalea. Acid grasslands are also extensive up here and, although are typically quite species-poor, include unusual species such as alpine lady's-mantle and sibbaldia. Where soils are more lime-rich at slightly lower altitudes, a thrilling grassland flora develops with mountain everlasting, alpine meadow-rue, alpine saw-wort, alpine cinquefoil and the rare alpine milk-vetch.
Some of the best cliff and scree flowers in the Cairngorms are found high up in the magnificent cliff buttresses, ridges and deeply indented gullies of the Northern Corries. A number of rare species grow here including alpine saxifrage, Highland saxifrage, Highland cudweed, hare’s-foot sedge and curved wood-rush.
Where snow lies late into the spring amazing ‘snow-bed’ communities of plants develop, adapted to survive the harshest of conditions. Alpine lady-fern and wavy meadow-grass join a rich diversity of rare mosses and liverworts, including snow fork-moss, scorched rustwort and monster pawwort.
The magnificent Caledonian pine forests couldn’t provide more of contrast to the high montane flora. Half the UKs native pinewoods are found in the Cairngorms and they reach their highest altitude here, with stunted ancient Scots pine trees intermixed with juniper scrub, creating a very Tolkeinesque landscape. Lower down the pinewoods are more statuesque, sometimes with a wonderful ground flora that can include creeping lady’s-tresses, twinflower and ostrich-plume feather-moss. On just a handful of rotting pine logs in the most sheltered of woodland spots, the amazing green shield-moss can be found. At less than a centimetre tall, this bizarre moss doesn’t really produce any true leaves, but instead just produces a single, huge spore-bearing capsule on a reddish stalk, apparently sprouting from nowhere.
Image: Cairngorms IPA © Bob Gibbons/Plantlife