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The Willow Walk: why a team of volunteers carried 3,000 saplings into the Cairngorms

In early June, a team of courageous Cairngorms Connect partners and volunteers carried 3,000 downy willow saplings into the Cairngorm Mountains. This small species of native willow tree is specially adapted for life in the extreme climate of the Cairngorm mountains but sadly, is struggling to survive. Through a momentous team effort, this rare shrub is being thrown a lifeline, thanks to local volunteers, Cairngorms Connect, Trees for Life and the Cairngorms National Park Authority.

Cairngorms Connect Communications and Involvement Manager, Sydney Henderson, describes the epic journey…

The day began at the Cairn Gorm Ski Centre car park, and as volunteers applied sun cream, we shared feelings of nerves and trepidation for a mountain walk after a year of home working, and minimal opportunities for adventure. For many, this was the first-time meeting colleagues, and there was a buzz brought on by the excitement of practical conservation and socialising for the first time in a long time.

Small staggered groups of volunteers set off, walking towards the Fiacaill a Choire Chais, at around 950m. Here, the small bundles of downy willow saplings were collected from a truck, and carefully packed into rucksacks and tree-carrying bags. From here, we took the path to the southeast of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, and descended into the Loch A’an basin through Coire Domhain. 

As we carried our precious cargo up into the mountain, conversation about ambitious landscape-scale habitat restoration filled the clear mountain air. The downy willow (Salix lapponum) is an extremely rare shrub, which thrives in high winds and low temperatures, making it an important species in the upper slopes of the Cairngorm mountains. Sadly, only a few scattered downy willow plants remain on cliffs edges and along steep burns, where they are inaccessible to grazing by deer and other animals. These individuals are often too far away from each other to successfully reproduce, so by planting new saplings, we hope to give this rare shrub a fighting chance at survival.

As we trekked over rock and snow, we dared to share to common hope that this project, and others like it across the Cairngorms Connect area, will soon see the revitalisation of this largely missing habitat to the Cairngorms. We hoped for a future where visitors to the high tops will once again be able to experience this rare and fragile habitat.

On arrival to the spectacular shores of Loch A’an, part of the RSPB Abernethy Nature Reserve, the saplings were dipped in a cool burn to wet the roots, ready for planting. After a hot, sweaty walk, a hardy bunch of volunteers also took a dip in the cold, clear waters of Loch A’an to cool off!

As we ate our lunch and slurped flasks of tea at the loch edge, we imagined what the high slopes of the Loch A’an basin would once have looked like. We pictured a luscious tangle of downy willow, reaching up into the sub-arctic mountain tops. This habitat, which has almost disappeared in Scotland, is important for a wide range of wildlife, such as ptarmigan and birds of prey. Willows also provide useful early-season nectar sources for pollinating insects such as mountain bumblebee, which in turn help alpine flowers to fertilise and set seed.

The following day, expert contractors carried out the planting of the saplings – no small task given the rocky terrain and mountainous location! The willows were placed in carefully planned locations, to bridge the gap between remaining remnants, and following natural features in the landscape to give the saplings the best chance at success. The Mountain Woodland Action Group (MWAG) advised on the project, as did experts from Norway, where this habitat is still largely intact, and in very similar environmental conditions to the Cairngorms.

A long time in the planning, this project began many years ago, with funding by the Cairngorms National Park Authority, and research by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, which found that the existing downy willow population in the Cairngorms are still genetically diverse, a probable sign that they are remnants of a much larger and interconnected historic population.

To improve the life-chances of this Cairngorm species on-the-edge, cuttings were taken from downy willows across its range and new, genetically diverse plants have been grown in Trees for Life’s tree nursery at Dundreggan. This year was the first time these first saplings were considered strong enough to be planted out into their natural habitat.

Although this walk may have taken only taken a day, it’s legacy will be long-lasting. With funding from the Endangered Landscapes Programme, Cairngorms Connect has a bold and ambitious 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species, and ecological processes across a vast area within the Cairngorms National Park. The downy willow saplings may only be small, but they are part of a much larger picture – one that is full of hope.

To find out more about Cairngorms Connect landscape-scale habitat restoration plans, visit our website, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

To visit the spectacular Loch A’an yourself, why not try the WalkHighlands “Beinn Mheadhoin via the Shelter Stone” route?

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