A Future for Mountain Plants

08 Dec 2022

It might seem strange for a plant enthusiast to be crossing their fingers and wishing for a thick layer of snow to cover up the vegetation, but that’s what I always find myself doing around this time of year. All season I’ve been taking every chance to enjoy our rare mountain plants – clambering about on steep slopes or hunting in the headwaters of the springs which bubble out of the rocks.

And it’s been a good season! Scotland is home to some fantastic, beautiful, specialist mountain plants – species which are perfectly adapted to brief, cool summers, and then long, snowy winters. Early in the year, when there was still snow on the high tops, purple saxifrage began to brighten up the crags and cliff faces with its clusters of pink-purple flowers. On a day in late March I found a scatter of these plants on a remote crag in Highland Perthshire. The same day, I watched a golden eagle displaying above the snowfields, and listened to a chorus of frogs in their high moorland ponds – all signs that spring was just around the corner.

Summer was a mixture of sweltering hot days, when I was cooling off on the summit plateaus amongst the trailing azalea and moss campion, and days of driving rain which I spent tramping across soggy hillsides looking for alpine meadow-rue, dwarf cornel, and hairy stonecrop, which stood out like a garish beacon on an otherwise dreary patch of moorland.

Now the plants have all settled down for a long winter sleep, and I’m waiting for snow. Why? Because many of our mountain plants require a thick blanket of snow to keep them insulated from cold winds and frosts. The harsh, snowy conditions also prevent other, commoner plants from moving up onto the mountain tops and out-competing the specialist species.

In a rapidly and chaotically warming world, our mountain plants face an uncertain future. New research by the University of Stirling published this year demonstrated how climate change is causing severe decline in mountain specialists, with one, snow pearlwort, being newly classified as Endangered as a result of this study. And Scottish Environment LINK’s Scotland’s Nature on Red Alert report showed that up to 93% of studied locations could become unsuitable for mountain plant species as average temperatures increase.

So, I might not get my snow. But I’m not losing hope for our mountains. This is because there are things we can do to make our mountains more resilient to a climate which is heating fast. We can reduce grazing pressure, to give mountain plants room to move in response to changing temperatures – too often, our rarest species cling to inaccessible crags, existing as isolated fragments instead of being part of a rich, vibrant, flourishing – and resilient – ecosystem.

We can restore our high-altitude  mountain woodlands – a habitat so comprehensively destroyed by the activity of humans that it has virtually slipped from our collective cultural memory. Mountain woodlands offer protection from extreme events, provide habitat for rare plants, and slow down the rate of flooding and soil erosion – as demonstrated by this research by Sarah Watts and Alistair Jump. It’s time to recreate this lost habitat with a renewed urgency.

Our battered old mountains have weathered some storms in their time, and there’s a chance that they’ll weather this one. But only if we collectively decide to help them do so – and take action now, before it’s too late. Then we can all look forward to another season of dazzling technicolour plants fizzing and popping across the rolling mountains and craggy peaks.

To meet the commitments set out in the Scottish Government’s statement of intent on biodiversity, Scotland’s upcoming Natural Environment Bill in 2023 must contain ambitious nature recovery targets. The new Scottish Biodiversity Strategy (SBS) needs to set out how those targets will be met and must prioritise a programme of species recovery. These actions will help give our mountain plants a future.


Alistair Whyte, Head of Plantlife Scotland


This blog is part of the LINK Thinks COP15 series. Click here to read the series of blogs by LINK staff, members and Honorary Fellows who will be highlighting the importance of targeted action in protecting and restoring our precious nature over the course of the conference.

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