Staff blog: Parsley fern and mountain thyme
Nevis seasonal ranger Nathan Berrie reports on an Alpine wildflower recce on the North Face of Ben Nevis
Looking up at the North Face of Ben Nevis from the CIC hut, it is hard to believe that anything would call this deadly environment home. With its eternal snow patches and towering cliffs, the mountain may seem uninhabitable - but it's bursting with life! For those daring enough to venture out, the North Face offers unique biodiversity rarely seen elsewhere in the UK.
Over the past three summers the North Face Survey project run by The Nevis Landscape Partnership and Scottish Natural Heritage studied this rare biodiversity. Botanists, geologists and mountain guides accessed areas of the mountain never before explored by the trained eye of experts. The project was a huge success with many rare alpine species identified throughout the ragged cliffs and surprisingly green gullies.
As there was no survey this year, Nevis Manager Alison Austin and I decided to revisit some of the sites to check on the progress of these secluded plant communities.
We picked one of those rare Scottish summer days, with a warm light breeze and sunshine. From the car park we approached the CIC hut below the North Face of Ben Nevis to have a bite to eat and ponder our route.
We decided on the Ledge Route - a simple but still very adventurous day on the mountain. Picking our way through the small rock bands and scree slopes searching for plant life, we noticed that parsley fern and mountain thyme were resilient in this ever mobile area of mountain side.
Alison in No.5 Gully
Having reached the grassy bank of Ledge Route, we were starting to find many of the rarer alpine species. Within No. 5 Gully, starry saxifrage and Alpine speedwell were making an appearance. Hare’s-foot sedge, a species that is at home in Svalbard, was also found. Moving our way on to the scramble section we spotted starwort and Arctic mouse-ear, which seemed comfortable considering the location they inhabit.
Although the day was warm and sunny, having experienced Ben Nevis during periods of intense winter conditions and remembering how cold it can be, I found it hard to believe that these little, seemingly delicate, wildflowers call this environment their home.
After a short scramble, we topped out on to Carn Dearg. From here we hand railed the cliff edge where we came across local mountain guide, Mike Pescod. Mike was part of the team during the North Face Survey and has developed a keen eye for rare alpine species. He reported that during his day with clients they stumbled across Highland and Alpine saxifrage around No.4 Gully - both of which are very scarce!
Mike Pescod with his clients making their way down Ledge Route
Having topped out, we ended our day by joining the main mountain path and litter picked our way down the mountain. With Ben Nevis usually shrouded in cloud and pelting rain, our day in the sun was a perfect reminder of why we are lucky to do this type of work.
Ben Nevis in rare sunshine
Read more about the three-year North Face Survey.