The Habitat Map of Scotland is mapping our habitats of European importance. This is one of our most important upland habitats. In the wider European Nature Information System (EUNIS) habitat classification this corresponds to E4.21 (Oroboreal Carex bigelowii-Racomitrium moss-heaths)
No, please, don’t look away! Seriously, these are stunning, moss-dominated mountain summit heaths in northern regions. Draping the highest shoulders, these mossy carpets are home to nesting dotterel and ptarmigan. Des Thompson, our Principal Adviser on Science and Biodiversity tells us more.
Driving on the A9, and bearing down on Inverness, look straight ahead – over Inverness, and beyond the Beauly Firth and Dingwall – to Ben Wyvis. There, look at that great sprawling hulk of a mountain – but steady, concentrate on the road! On the top, cloaking the extensive summit ridge, is the largest single carpet of this mossy heath in Britain.
If you can, visit Ben Wyvis NNR, park at Garbat on the A835, and head east for the first peak, An Cabar. There, feel the mossy bounce of the heath underfoot. The stiff (or Bigelow’s) sedge adds texture, and spanglings of lichens give colour. And what a variety of golden, yellow and brown hues to behold, depending on the light, mist and rain. In the spring, as you head north east for the summit, look to the skyline, for if you are lucky you may see a rare dotterel bobbing, and perfectly camouflaged. Often confiding, this bird is unusual in that the male alone cares for eggs and chicks. He can be so tame that ‘moss fool’ is one nickname still used in northern England.
This heath is one of our best indicators of air quality. Dependent almost entirely on rainfall and mist for its nutrients, it is a superb barometer of acidic deposition. Research has shown how these heaths have fragmented south of the Highlands where relatively high levels of atmospheric nitrogen have favoured some grasses at the expense of the moss. Close monitoring of these heaths tells us a lot about how air quality is changing.
Oh, and another snippet regarding Ben Wyvis – just look at how often the mountain has a cap of cloud over it, with the misty cloak a snug fit for the mossy heath. Some mountain habitats just love to be smothered in mist and rain! To quote the poet Sanober Khan, “you make autumn mist taste like champagne and turn winter rain into the elixir of life itself.”
And how’s this for a myth? It is said that in 1769 a deer forest on the flank of Ben Wyvis was given to Sir Harry Munro on the strict condition of: ‘delivering a snowball on any day of the year that it is demanded’ by the monarch! Well, this is nearly possible, as Ben Wyvis has some of our longest lying snowbeds. Now, these really are fascinating, often seen as twinkling white specks from a great distance. And of course, the EUNIS classification doesn’t disappoint, referring to these as Boreo-alpine fern snowbed grasslands (E4.14). Anyone want to delve into these?!
Go and seek out the riches of Ben Wyvis NNR yourself.
This is one of a series of blogs on habitats mapped by the Habitat Map of Scotland project.
More information on the project is available here.
More information on the data is here.
You can view the data on Scotland’s environment web map here.
A link to the original blog on Scotland’s environment blog.