Staff blog: The North Face Survey

Kevin Lelland, the Trust’s head of communications and membership, spends a day on Ben Nevis learning about a unique project.

Northfacesurveywavymeadowgrass detail

We have stopped on a scree slope below the north face of Ben Nevis - a couple of hundred metres above the Charles Inglis Clark (CIC) Memorial Hut - and a thick bank of cloud has rolled in.

Visibility might be down to a few metres, but botanist Ian Strachan has spotted a tuft of grass. He is quickly down on his knees and holding a small magnifying glass to his eye. After a quick consultation, he confirms that it is wavy meadow grass – a plant that has never been identified at this location on the mountain before.

Connor, our mountain guide gets on his radio: “Connor to Mike… We’ve found some wavy meadow grass!”

I suddenly feel excited:  the identification of the wavy meadow grass at this location will be added to the official records of the 2016 North Face Survey – a project that will start in earnest the next day.

Our ‘taster experience’ has been organised by the Nevis Landscape Partnership’s (NLP) environmental projects manager, Lewis Pate.

NLP is currently co-ordinating 19 conservation and community projects at Ben Nevis and Glen Nevis - across multiple partners including the John Muir Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage and the National Trust for Scotland – and fifteen of us, including my colleagues Celia Brady, Development Manager and John McTague from the John Muir Award team, are here to learn more about the North Face Survey.

Now in its third and final year, the project brings botanists, geologists and climbers together to explore the 4.5 km wall of the North Face of Ben Nevis. They are discovering and mapping its geological history and accessing gullies and cliff faces where plant life has never been surveyed before. Their results will inform future conservation efforts and understanding of Ben Nevis’ unique environment.

Before our wavy meadow grass discovery, we’d also learnt about plants including lady’s mantle, eye bright, parsley fern, scurvy grass and… sea thrift!  Ian explained that thrift favours saline environments and while widely known as a coastal plant, can also be found on mountains and increasingly along the UK’s roads due to the increase in winter gritting.

Ian’s passion for botany is infectious, and the 90 minutes we spend with him feel like five. I love walking on hillsides, but being in the company of someone with such a vast knowledge of the plants surrounding us lifted that experience further. 

Our taster session also introduced us to the geology of the Ben.

Dr Roddy Muir, one of the lead geologists on the project, explained why Nevis is quite unique: “You’ve probably heard stories about a volcano at Ben Nevis, but it’s not related to the shape of the mountain we see today. That shape is really young, it’s somewhere between 11 and 18 thousand years old and was carved out by ice. In contrast, the rocks that make-up Ben Nevis are about 400 to 420 million years old.”

In our 90 minute geology session, Roddy and his colleague Susanna Willan introduce us to a mobile application (app) developed by the company they work for, Midland Valley.

Historically, mapping the geology of an area took weeks and involved paper, a compass and a pencil. Now, the geologists download the app, connect it to a GPS signal and capture information on rock types, angles and joints. This data is then exported directly into a computer for increasingly accurate mapping afterwards.

Of course, you still need to get yourself and the mobile device to the rocks in question – but what once took weeks can now be done in days. And in the case of this project, with the support of the climbers, that includes getting into some new tough to access areas – often with a harness and involving an abseil.

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Photo: Susanna Willan from Midland Valley demonstating the FieldMove app

Helping with this access, is a team of climbers assembled by Mike Pescod of Abacus Mountain Guides.

Mike explained his team’s involvement in the project has been technically challenging: “Plants tend to grow in pretty manky, wet and loose places - not nice climbing places. We’ve come down into the really steep places with two ropes, using a mixture of industrial and mountain guide type techniques.

“We use light touch with no fixed anchors. Everything we’ve put in we’ve taken out again. In fact, we’ve also been able to take out any of the bits of rope and sling left by other climbers leaving the place cleaner than before.”

I leave inspired by a group of people, all at the top of their respective games, working together to deliver a result beyond any one individual. It’s a great example of what a landscape partnership approach can achieve.

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Photo: The taster day group  (Image courtesy of Nevis Landscape Partnership)

The Trust owns Ben Nevis to protect it for the benefit of the public. It is involved in several conservation projects as part of the Nevis Landscape Partnership programme, including the North Face Survey. Trust land manager Alison Austin and ranger Blair Fyffe are participating in this year’s survey between the 8th and 12th August.  

Find out more: watch the short film ‘Ben Nevis: The Hidden Side’ produced and directed in the first year of the project by local climber and film maker Dave MacLeod.

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Lead Photo: Wavy Meadow Grass (image courtesy of Nevis Landscape Partnership)