Britain’s highest trees discovered atop Scotland’s Munros by University of Stirling researcher

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Sitka Spruce on Ben Vorlich

Trees are growing at record-breaking heights atop Scotland’s Munros, new research by the University of Stirling has found.

Eleven new altitudinal records for tree species in Britain were recorded, including Rowan at 1,150m near the summit of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan in West Affric, Sitka Spruce at 1,125m on Braeriach, the third highest mountain in Britain, and Goat Willow at 984m on Beinn Eibhinn.

Woodland and montane scrub on Highland hilltops were lost over thousands of years because of human activity and researchers at the University of Stirling are examining how the natural treelines can be restored.

Sarah Watts, PhD researcher in the University of Stirling’s Faculty of Natural Sciences, gathered evidence by scrambling up Munros, mountains in Scotland with an elevation of more than 914 metres.

Sarah Watts with Rowan on Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan

Sarah at 1150m with Rowan on Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan

Sarah said: “I have now bagged more than 200 Munros although I must admit I did lose count because I am more concerned with recording the distribution and altitudes of trees and other mountain plants.

“It was fascinating to find trees growing at the absolute limit of environmental tolerance for these species. Some were 200m above previously known altitudes.

“This shows us that there is potential for woodland restoration in Britain’s mountains after centuries of habitat loss and degradation.”

Munro baggers and mountaineers

Sarah was assisted by dozens of Munro baggers and mountaineers who sent her photographs of trees growing near summits on social media using the hashtag #highmountaintrees. She also set up the Facebook group High Altitude Trees of Britain and Ireland where members can provide information. Sarah verified the altitude of trees using a handheld altimeter.

Sarah said: “These data on altitudinal ranges help us understand the environmental tolerances of plants and how climate change or land management may be influencing their distribution.

“This research will also help inform my PhD project focusing on mountain woodland restoration and conservation management to reinstate the natural altitudinal treeline.

“These high-altitude habitats have largely been lost across the Scottish Highlands due to overgrazing of livestock and deer, but can be havens of biodiversity providing benefits for wildlife and people including natural hazard protection, sheltering, and flood-risk reduction.”

Sarah’s research High mountain trees: altitudinal records recently broken for eleven different tree species in Britain was published in British and Irish Botany an online journal from the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland.

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