Saturday, 3 July 2010

Wild Mountain Time

The mid-Summer nights at Laggan never seemed to get truly dark and the still of night was forever being punctured by the noise of farm animals and breeding waders that were nesting in the rough pasture. A fitful sleep is never the best preparation for anything, let alone the prospect of a full day’s walking and watching on Creag Meagaidh, yet we shared the concerns of the wheezing Lapwings and irked Oystercatchers, as we knew that they had youngsters to protect from the jaws of hungry foxes.

With the weather set fair, we readied ourselves for a marathon day out in a wild, beautiful and rugged, yet readily accessible, part of our Highland heritage, where we were to enjoy a mosaic of upland and montane habitats on a truly marvellous mountain. As aesthetes, we rarely target individual species, whether it be bird, plant or animal, forever content to appreciate a representative slice of what an area has to offer. However, we had come to the Monadhliah mountains and Cairngorms hoping to catch up with two birds that are decidedly rare on the Isle of Mull: Dotterel and Ptarmigan.

Extending from the shore of freshwater Loch Laggan, with its incongruous golden sandy beach, to the wide, near summit, plateau of rock and wooly-fringe moss heath, the Creag Meagaidh complex is one of the most diverse and thus important upland environments in the country. Rather than retrace our steps of the previous day, we decided to tackle the mountain from an alternative route along the Moy burn. Although, quite literally, an uphill struggle at times, the hardest part was accessing the ridge that was to lead us all the way to the summit cairn of ‘Craig Maggie’. Any reluctance in our legs, however, gave way to unbridled exuberance when, after a re-energising lunch, we found ourselves alone on our very own private mountain for the day.

Dotted along the path, which cuts through dwarf shrub heaths of blaeberry, crowberry and cross-leaved heath, are miniature forests of clubmosses. It is not difficult to imagine a scene, some 300 million years earlier, when giant clubmosses would have dominated the Earth’s vegetation. During the Carboniferous period of our geological past, such primeval forests would have attained heights of up to 100 feet. Today, these non-flowering plants are much more vertically challenged, but that doesn’t take anything away from their appeal.

With a branch system of upright, fertile stems, the Alpine Clubmoss had a distinctive look about it. The paler terminal spikes contain the spore-bearing organs. Another species of these erroneously named plants (they are not mosses, rather a primitive type of fern) that we came across was the Fir Clubmoss, which are often found growing below the zone in which true alpine plants occur. Interestingly, the dust from the spores of clubmosses were previously used as one of the earliest forms of baby powder, presumably in days before nappy rash was a problem!

The high altitude and extreme exposure to the elements make life difficult for those plants, birds and animals that make their home on the wide expanse of plateau that exists below the summit of Creag Meagaidh. Much of this area is covered in low growing woolly-fringe moss, interspersed with bare patches of loose rock and provides a perfect Summer retreat for one of Britain’s rarest and highly specialised breeding waders. Few birds live at such altitudes, so any strange and unfamiliar sounds are always worth investigating. As if on cue, a soft ‘pweet-pweet-pweet’ call could be heard breaking the silence of the near wind-less day and we were able to feast our eyes on our first ever Dotterel before completing the final ascent to the summit cairn with a noticeable spring in our step!

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