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Cliff-hanger ending can be avoided for rare tree in Cairngorms

By Gavin Musgrove

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Volunteers are coming to the rescue of the downy willow.
Volunteers are coming to the rescue of the downy willow.

A small species of native willow tree, specially adapted for life in the extreme climate of the Cairngorm mountains, is being thrown a lifeline.

It is thanks to a team effort by local volunteers and staff from Cairngorms Connect, Trees for Life and the Cairngorms National Park Authority.

The downy willow (Salix lapponum) is a member of the willow family, but unlike its more familiar cousins, it only grows to waist height.

This extremely rare shrub used to form much of the habitat known as montane scrub and is a reminder that the Cairngorms was once a stronghold of this specialist type of woodland.

It occurs high up the mountains in-between the more familiar pine forests and the extreme harshness of the montane plateau.

Now 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.

But it is hoped a new initiative will soon see the revitalisation of this largely missing habitat to the Cairngorms.

The project to fortify the existing downy willow population began several years ago when scientists mapped every individual downy willow plant clinging on to life across the Cairngorms, in a study funded by the CNPA.

Whilst researching these willows, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh found that they are still genetically diverse, a probable sign that they

are remnants of a much larger and interconnected historic population.

However, scientists suggest that any offspring these remaining downy willows have will lose genetic diversity which will make them increasingly vulnerable to disease, and thus more fragile.

To make matters worse for the downy willow, an individual plant is either male or female, meaning one isolated plant on a cliff edge is not able to produce offspring – and even a small group of plants will not be able to reproduce if all the individuals within it are the same sex.

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.

The first saplings are now considered strong enough to be planted out into their natural habitat and in a huge team effort.

More than 30 staff and volunteers will carry 3,000 new trees in special back-packs from the Cairngorm mountain car park to sites around Loch A’an on RSPB Scotland’s Abernethy reserve.

The Mountain Woodland Action Group (MWAG) has advised on the project, as have experts from Norway, where the montane scrub habitat is still largely intact in very similar environmental conditions to the Cairngorms.

The seedlings will be sympathetically planted to follow natural features in the landscape which provide the best growing conditions and will supplement already existing remnant clusters and create new genetically diverse clusters.

Planting will be carried out by a specialist planting contractor from next Tuesday (June 1).

More downy willow seedlings are being grown in RSPB Abernethy's tree nursery and in time, these will join the saplings being planted out this summer.

Steve Blow, Delivery Manager for the Cairngorms Connect partnership, which is part-funded by The Endangered Landscapes Programme, said: “The restoration of this missing element of the montane habitat is a major milestone in the Cairngorms Connect project.

"All the project partners, RSPB Scotland, Wildland Limited, NatureScot and Forestry and Land Scotland share the aspiration to restore the forest to its natural limit, to benefit wildlife and people.

"These hardy little willow trees survive in the harshest of conditions but are now so scattered and few in number that they struggle to regenerate naturally.

"This project marks the beginning of a new lifeline for the montane scrub habitat in the Cairngorms and we hope that in years to come, visitors to the high tops will once again be able to experience this rare and fragile habitat.”

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