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06 August, 2014

Major survey set to start on Ben Nevis North Face

Climbers are set to take part in the most detailed botanical survey ever to be carried out on part of Britain’s highest mountain.

The north face of Ben Nevis is internationally important for geology and plant life, and is also important for birds. The mountain, and some of its satellite hills, provide exceptional habitats for rare arctic-alpine flora. Their importance is reflected in the Ben Nevis Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The three-year initiative by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) will involve 10 experienced climbers and two climbing botanists. They will conduct a roped access botanical survey of the 125 hectares that make up the steep north face of the Ben.

Also involved in the work is Midland Valley Exploration, who are providing geological survey technology and expertise. They will help investigate the influence geology has on the distribution of the plants.

It is thought a number of new locations for rare species will be found, as well as some species which have so far gone unrecorded on Ben Nevis. The survey will also assess any effects of recreation and climate change on the health of the rare plants.

Cathy Mayne of SNH said: “We are very excited to be doing this joint venture between professional botanists, climbers and geologists. It will yield important new records on the rare plants found on Ben Nevis. The results should tell us more about the geology of the face and the influence this has on plant distribution. It should also flag up any imminent threats to the plants and help us decide if any action is needed to help them.”

She added: “Finding something not previously recorded here would be a real bonus and incredibly exciting were it to happen.”

SNH has invested £52,000 in the three-year Ben Nevis North Face project – part of the Nevis Landscape Partnership scheme. It involves two botanists and up to 10 climbers under the supervision of a Mountain Guide, and one or more SNH officers.

This week climbers are finding out more about the special plants that live in the shady gullies and ledges of their mountain workplace and learning how to identify individual species. This will also raise awareness among climbers of the vulnerability of rare plants on the face.

The training will be followed by one-week surveys next week then again in 2015 and 2016.

And at the end of the three years a blueprint will exist for repeating this kind of collaborative work on other cliffs in Scotland at which botanical records are scarce or absent.


Notes to editors

Professional climbers will be trained in the identification of the relevant flora to conduct the survey and will use their rope-access skills to safely access the north face to look for plants. Interestingly clean, dry rock will generally be avoided and the focus will be on the loose, damp ground where these species are most likely to be found.

Botanists will be on hand to assist in the survey and identification of the plants, being taken to the richest locations by the climbers. The fieldwork will take place over a week and plant images and habitats will be uploaded onto a website.

The land is owned by Rio Tinto Alcan and forms part of their extensive landholding to provide hydroelectricity for the Lochaber aluminium smelter in Fort William.

Ben Nevis is a place of contrasts. It occupies an iconic place in the rich history of mountaineering and yet remains at the forefront of modern climbing. The 700 metre high cliffs on its North Face provide some of the most famous ice climbing routes in the world as well as some of the most ferocious and unpredictable weather conditions in Europe.

As well as an adventure paradise, these cliffs are home to rare and protected species. The area is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation. Plant assemblages have adapted to the arctic-alpine conditions encountered at the UK’s highest altitude. Semi-permanent snow fields, scree-filled gullies and steep buttresses provide a range of unusual habitats.

The climbing area being survey areas follows: Brenva Face, NE Buttress, Orion Face;Zero Gully to Gardyloo Gully; Gardyloo Gully to Number Two Gully (basically Tower Ridge +); Number Two Gully to Number Five Gully; Number Five Gully to Red Gully.

Contact information

SNH Media

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