Beinn Eighe NNR might be best known for Scots pine, red deer and golden eagles, but if you happen to be walking the old ‘Pony path’ into the heart of the Reserve, and you take a glance down at your feet now and again, there’s a fair chance you might spot one of the world’s rarest plants.
Orange in colour and growing up to 20 cm long in small dense clusters on Beinn Eighe’s north-west slopes, northern prongwort (Herbertus borealis) is a species of plant that is not just unique to Scotland, it grows only in the area of Beinn Eighe and nowhere else in the world!
Northern prongwort is a liverwort which, along with their close cousins the mosses and hornworts, belong to a specialised group of plants known as bryophytes. Preferring damp habitats, bryophytes don’t require soil, gaining their nutrition entirely from rainwater. This makes them particularly well suited to the damp, nutrient-poor soil on the slopes of Beinn Eighe.
So what makes bryophytes so interesting? Well, they just happen to be among the oldest of all plant groups, having been among the first plants to colonise the land around 500 million years ago. They would also have been among the first plants to re-colonise the British Isles at the end of the last Ice Age, as the retreating glaciers left a rocky, barren landscape stripped clean of any soil. As these primitive plants grew and died, over many generations their decaying remains would have helped form the first thin layers of soil, eventually allowing for higher plants to gain a foothold. This makes bryophytes especially important as a ‘pioneer species’, colonising areas that are otherwise unable to support plant life.
Over the course of my placement at Beinn Eighe NNR, I’ve been surveying and monitoring northern prongwort to help determine the spread and distribution of this unusual little plant. This has involved the regular monitoring of known plots and recording any new colonies that I find. As you might imagine, this involves an awful lot of leg work, as well as making good use of a handheld GPS device. It does however take me to some remote parts of the Reserve that are otherwise rarely visited.
As northern prongwort is confined to a very limited area – only in the area of Beinn Eighe, it is particularly vulnerable to summer wildfires, the event of which could be potentially disastrous for the species. The good news is that my surveys have so far revealed northern prongwort to be a lot more widespread than was first realised. This is encouraging, as the greater the area of its distribution, then the greater its chances of long term survival.
Surveying and monitoring bryophytes like northern prongwort can provide early indications of change in the habitats where these plants grow. Regular monitoring can also reveal the presence of pollutants entering the food chain that could be potentially hazardous to species higher up the chain, including us humans. Another very good reason for carrying out these surveys is quite simply to increase our knowledge and understanding of this otherwise little known species. Given that some of our most important medicines have derived from the plant world, some of those being only recent discoveries, then there’s no telling what secrets these hidden gems might reveal to us in the future.
This latest Beinn Eighe NNR report comes from Stuart MacKenzie. Stuart is currently working with us a one year placement at Beinn Eighe NNR following his completion of an HND in Countryside Management at SRUC. Since commencing his placement last summer, Stuart has been gaining practical experience in a broad range of NNR duties.
You can find out a lot more about liverworts from the SNH website.
Discover Beinn Eighe NNR for yourself on the NNR website.