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Conservation work

Ben Lawers NNR is listed as a site of European importance for several scarce or declining habitats. Successful conservation of these important features requires detailed knowledge – long-term monitoring is vital at Ben Lawers. It has shown that whilst some species are holding their own, the future for others is bleak. Collecting activity in previous years drastically reduced some populations, and the natural ranges of others have become restricted by centuries of over-grazing. Some species faced local extinction without intervention.

An example of ‘species recovery’ was the work to save the highland saxifrage (Saxifraga rivularis). This nationally rare species is adapted to grow in some of the harshest conditions, in places that are perpetually cold. There was good evidence of a marked decline in the 20th century, from a very small concentrated population to a single remaining plant by 1989. Propagating and planting new individuals on the reserve aimed to prevent its loss from Ben Lawers. Annual monitoring now shows an increased number of plants, hopefully the basis of a viable population able to sustain itself.

A system of grazing rights attached to the Ben Lawers hill ground at the time of Trust purchase gives lochside farms the right to graze sheep there in perpetuity. In addition to this domestic stock, wild deer roam the hills. Grazing by both has affected the distribution of plants and habitats, some of which are rare. Excluding grazing by fencing was enough to allow natural regeneration of tall flowering plants and some trees. Other species were so degraded that they required active restoration to kick-start the process. We began a unique programme of restoration of less common mountain shrub species. Treeline woodland and montane scrub was the ‘Cinderella’ habitat of Scotland, having been largely neglected by conservation until recently. Decades later the restored areas have been transformed into thriving ecosystems held as exemplars to others seeking to carry out similar work. 

Another important, but degraded, habitat on Ben Lawers NNR is peat bog. A project was undertaken as part of a Scotland-wide effort to conserve peatland – vital for carbon storage – funded by Scottish Natural Heritage. As well as reprofiling hags, mulching, planting and the use of biodegradable geotextiles were trialled to promote revegetation of bare peat. 

Some of our most important conservation work at Ben Lawers results from its attractions. The high mountains of the Ben Lawers and Tarmachan ranges make it a highly popular destination for hill walkers. More than 30,000 people climb the most accessible routes every year, leading to wear and tear on a massive scale. Repeated trampling wears away the fragile vegetation, and Scotland’s weather tears away the exposed soil, creating huge scars. These are both unsightly and uncomfortable to walk on.

Sensitive work to control this erosion is a never-ending and expensive job. Since it began almost 40 years ago, it has cost in excess of £500,000. Regular maintenance and consolidation work is required to prevent deterioration and the Trust’s Footpath Team, partially funded by the Footpath Fund, carry out much of this work. Their role is made more essential with new routes constantly developing, and climate change reducing protective winter snow cover and increasing rainfall.

Footpath team at work on Ben Lawers. A group of people use a lever to try and shift a large boulder into place on a hillside.
The Footpath team at work on Ben Lawers

Pioneering methods for revegetating large areas of bare ground in sensitive habitats at high altitude, where recovery is very slow, have been an integral part of this work.

Much of our conservation work would not be possible without the valuable contribution of volunteers. There are a wealth of volunteering opportunities available through the local Conservation Volunteer groupThistle Camps or Trailblazer holidays.

Ben Lawers NNR also offers enormous scope for research. Of particular interest is the potential impact of climate change on species and habitats. An automatic weather station has been installed on the lower slopes of the Tarmachan ridge in collaboration with the University of Dundee. The data it produces will be used in conjunction with our long-term ecological monitoring to investigate this. But, as it provides data in real time, it has proved to be a useful resource for walkers too!

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