From the wild and windswept mountain plateau to a woodland that’s slowly finding its feet again, Creag Meagaidh feels like the Highlands compressed into one nature reserve. Rare mountain plants like woolly willow and Highland saxifrage battle against the elements, whilst black grouse flourish in the combination of woodland and open moorland. With Munro summits, an exposed whaleback ridge and ice carved gullies, Creag Meagaidh is the complete mountain experience.
The reserve has proved extremely popular this year. Visitor number at Creag Meagaidh have rocketed, jumping from 8000 to around the 20000 mark. Arguably the key to this has been new tourist signs, a further 3,000 metres of all abilities paths, and a new car park that helps people to pull in easily and soak up what Creag Meagaidh has to offer.
Reserve Manager Rory Richardson keeps a swipe-board at the reception area up-to-date with all the recent sightings and he was able to reel off a very impressive list of things seen by visitors. “We’ve had a huge range of birds of late,” he explained “including oyster catchers, curlew, ringed plover, stonechat, mallards, golden eagle, merlin, peregrine, osprey, kestrel, black grouse, red grouse, ptarmigan, and snipe.”
The reserve isn’t just a haven for a rich variety of birds. There are plenty of mammals about too and Rory mentioned that red deer, roe deer, otter, and pine marten were all spotted over the last few weeks.
Making sure that people can enjoy the reserve is a huge element of what staff aim to do at Creag Meagaidh. It isn’t just the provision of paths and car parks that contributes to that work. Each April Scottish Natural Heritage staff stage a black grouse safari which features an early morning viewing of the courtship ritual of the grouse known as ‘lekking’. This daily display takes place just before sunrise hence the early start of 6am at Creag Meagaidh.
However there is a reward of a mug of tea and bacon rolls back at SNH’s Aberarder base for all participants.
Rory is keen to welcome people along to the free event. “The black grouse numbers on Creag Meagaidh have been increasing in recent years – we do annual counts in spring and it is always interesting to see the numbers are like each year”, he said. “It is a real delight to be able to share the beauty of the black grouse display with other people, though they are absolutely stunning birds to look at and some of the noises they make are out of this world.”
Volunteers are vital to the success of Creag Meagaidh too. This year saw a record number of ten volunteers staying on the reserve at one time. They came from all over the world to experience working on a National Nature Reserve and spent fifty percent of their time on their conservation projects and the other fifty percent helping with estate maintenance. They all get free accommodation, cooking and washing facilities, they also get the chance to learn and experience life on a highland Nature Reserve.
In 1790, the Statistical Account recorded 20,000 sheep in the Parish of Laggan, which included Creag Meagaidh. By 1840, just fifty years later, the New Statistical Account recorded the presence of 40,000 sheep in the parish. Thus, like much of the Highlands, vegetation has been heavily grazed for centuries, so it was decided to reduce the number of grazing animals by removing sheep and culling red deer.
The aim was not to eliminate grazing animals altogether, but to keep numbers at a level that allowed the habitats, especially the woodland, to recover. Although controversial in some quarters initially it is now recognised that the vegetation around Creag Meagaidh NNR has benefitted hugely form this, then innovative, approach.
The reserve was designated in May 1986 and in 2011 celebrated its 25th anniversary. On the evidence of this year it has many more years of popularity to anticipate.
Find out more about Creag Meagaidh NNR @ http://www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/creag-meagaidh/
Images: Rory Richardson / SNH and David McKenzie (Loch Laggan and black grouse)