Three years of surveying the North Face of Ben Nevis, one week each year, has now been completed. Eight guides, four botanists, one geologist, two John Muir Trust staff, four trainee volunteer rangers, two Nevis Landscape Partnership staff, one base camp manager and several volunteers were all dispatched to the last few areas of the 300 hectare site, a site of special scientific interest on account of the rare plants and geology. So, was it all worth it?
Several years ago the existence of nationally rare mouse ears and saxifrages at the top of Number Four Gully was well known but it seemed that this was the only location they could be found. If so, their survival on Ben Nevis was at risk and the possibility of translocating plants was seriously considered. Before doing anything though, it was worth getting a better understanding of the distribution of these plants by reaching the less accessible places with the use of guides. The first thought was to get a guide and a botanist together for a few days to see what turned up. However Cathy Mayne of Scottish Natural Heritage and Tristan Semple of Nevis Landscape Partnership could see the value of going bigger, much bigger! It was a risk because we might have found nothing but it seems to have paid off very well.
This year we found more locations for Highland Saxifrage and Arctic and Starwort Mouse Ears, as we have done in the last two years. We also found a new location of Tufted Saxifrage and Alpine Saxifrage. Since Alpine Saxifrage had not been recorded on Ben Nevis before we started, finding a small colony of these plants this year was a brilliant result and the Tufted Saxifrage is just as good.
In a recent publication, Wavy Meadow Grass (Poa Flexuosa) is described as being incredibly rare with its biggest population found on Ben Nevis, about 300 plants. During this survey we found two new locations and this year we counted 550 plants in one of them. On Ben Nevis, Wavy Meadow Grass is doing really quite well compared with the rest of the UK.
We also have a huge set of geological data that will be put into a really cool 3D image showing all the rocks above and below the surface, and a coherent model of how the rocks of Ben Nevis came to be how they are (it's a roof pendant by the way, if you know what that is).
Does any of this matter? Why did we spend so much time and effort counting little flowers and grasses that few people recognise anyway?
Well, there are very good reasons why we should maintain our mountains in good condition for the sake of biodiversity and to study it for the impact of global warming. However, the more immediate benefit is simply knowing just how special climbing on Ben Nevis is. It's quite well understood that, at its best, climbing on Ben Nevis is second to none. It stands amongst the best mountaineering experiences available on the world stage. And now we know it is that little bit more special because as you walk in to Coire na Ciste we will know that beneath our boots is the nations largest area of Wavy Meadow Grass, a very rare species of grass; as we climb Green Gully, ice axes biting into the plastic snow-ice, remember that super rare species of flowers grow underneath called Arctic Mouse Ear, Alpine Speedwell and Highland Saxifrage; as you climb The Great Chimney, first climbed by Marshall and Smith in that legendary week of climbing in 1960, remember that it is home to a colony of Alpine Saxifrage and Tufted Saxifrage on account of the slight difference in geology that formed the chimney in the first place.
Our enjoyment of climbing on Ben Nevis is far more than just the climbing. After all, there are other places we could climb that are far easier to get to. If it was just about the climbing, we would all climb indoors. But it's not just about the climbing, it's much more about the place, its beauty, its nature and the challenge presented by the environment. The more we know about it and how special a place it is, the better the experience will be of climbing there.
Huge thanks go to Cathy Mayne of SNH, Donald King, Al Halewood, Scott Kirkhope, Dave Anderson, Will Rowland, Dave Buckett, Connor Holdsworth and Andy Hague. It's been a pleasure to work with Roddy Muir of Midland Valley, Ian Strachan, Dan Watson of NTS and Matt Harding the botanists, Ali Austin and Blair Fyffe of JMT, and James Cooper who worked all week just for fun. It would not have been possible without Lewis Pate, Susan Nicol, Beccy Cantle, Ciaran Tangney, Peter Struthers and Hannah Bathgate of Nevis Landscape Partnership.
It's been a great demonstration of the benefits of partnership working and an absolute blast!
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.