A five-year project which has seen botanists scour Ben Nevis for the tiniest of alpine flowers and restore its well-trodden path has just finished – with remarkable results. Sandra Dick finds out more

Pretty daisy-like blooms explode from Ben Nevis’s rocky crevices – snowy white and with crisp green stems, they bring a burst of life to the rugged mountainside.

Clinging to craggy cliffs, tucked in hard-to-reach corries and dotted across Ben Nevis’s exposed slopes, the mountain’s alpine plants are rare and tiny.

But while they may look fragile, they are deceptively tough. And, it transpires, a little more prevalent than had previously been thought.

A £3.4 million programme carried out by Nevis Landscape Partnership involving 19 separate projects on Ben Nevis and the surrounding glen has just reached its conclusion.

Over its five-year lifespan, it has seen 12,000 trees raised from seed by children and planted in Glen Nevis to help to replace trees lost to deer, disease and the elements, and a new accessible path created at the foot of the mountain. It has also seen art, education and community engagement projects which have boosted understanding of the mountain’s unique habitat and history.

And for the 160,000 visitors who every year trek the Ben’s well-worn 16km path, loose, broken and lost stones have been replaced – making it a far less risky experience.

But perhaps the most challenging – and revealing – project was the one that combined the efforts of 24 botanists, geologists and mountain guides in a painstaking and sometimes daredevil search for some of the tiniest inhabitants of Britain’s tallest peak.

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The North Face Survey took scientists roped to mountain guides for safety to some of the Ben’s most challenging corries, gullies and scree-covered slopes, in a “needle in a haystack” search for tiny specks of plant life.

Perhaps remarkably for a mountain which has towered over Scottish life for thousands of years, the survey ventured into areas never previously explored by scientists.

As well as shedding fresh light on the extent of the mountain’s fascinating plant life – leading to Scottish Natural Heritage to upgrade conditions from “unfavourable” to “favourable” – the survey forged a remarkable appreciation between the climbers, botanists and geologists for the mountain, and helped ensure one of its best-loved gullies would remain accessible to climbers.

According to Mike Pescod, a mountain guide and chair of Nevis Landscape Partnership, a key element of the project was to assess whether rare flowers in number four gully were adversely affected by climbers – an issue which raised fears that climbing in the area might be curbed to help ensure fragile plants’ survival.

“When we were introduced to the botanists they alluded to ice axe-wielding climbers who ripped out plants,” he recalled. “But after three years of working together, it was clear we shared a passion and enthusiasm for the place, landscape and the plants.”

Better still, their labours were rewarded with a series of remarkable results.

Before the survey, only around 50 populations of its target species of alpine plants were thought to survive the harsh conditions of the North Face.

However, the survey identified more than 300, including fresh sites for some of our rarest alpine plants.

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They include tufted saxifrage, with its small, jagged leaves that measure only 5-10mm and tiny white flowers with pale green veins to attract passing butterflies and flies, generally found nestling amid scree and rock clefts. And also exceedingly rare wavy meadow-grass – Poa flexuosa – classed as “vulnerable” and found in only a few locations across the country.

Perhaps most unexpected, however, was the discovery of two species of plants not previously found on the Ben: alpine saxifrage, with deceivingly resilient flowers and more commonly found in Iceland, Greenland and Norway; and curved woodrush, a short, grassy herb found on windswept, rocky summits and plateaus.

There were flashes of colour found in the harshest and hardest locations: emerald green leaves and deep red catkins of female dwarf willows were discovered nestling amid the granite of Tower Ridge, involving a heart-pumping scramble and rock climb to reach.

Alpine lady’s mantle, drooping saxifrage and fresh populations of white-flowered Arctic mouse-ear were also recorded – unfortunately, some at higher altitudes than expected, hinting at a movement uphill in search of colder climes.

As well as noting the plants’ locations, details of their health and size were recorded to provide a baseline for future botanical surveys.

Alongside the scale of finding and documenting tiny plants across a vast area, botanists and climbers faced difficult terrain and complex logistical challenges of carrying huge amounts of rope, safety equipment and survey items up and down the mountain each day. Simply reaching difficult spots pushed climbers and their non-climbing colleagues to the limit.

“The botanists had a degree of climbing ability, and were very capable of climbing over slimy, muddy places which climbers think are horrible. But when it comes to rope systems to help access 250m high cliffs, it was beyond what they could to,” added Pescod.

“Climbers are usually looking for nice, solid rock, but that’s not where these plants grow. There were loose bits of rock and sharp edges, making it all a lot harder.”

While the survey has ended, he said climbers’ new knowledge of the mountain’s alpine plants means they now seek them out during outings, snapping images to share with botanists and passing on what they have learned to others.

“It’s lovely to be able to climb and know what these plants are that I’m looking at,” he added. “It elevates your day.”

Although the botanical survey was one of the most intense of the 19 projects, the most obvious one for mountain visitors was the extensive repair of 5km of the Ben Nevis Path, damaged by tens of thousands of walkers’ boots.

Fixing it involved 3,500 volunteer hours and a logistical headache after stone intended for repairs and stored high up the mountain couldn’t be moved because of adverse weather.

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Alternative granite from a nearby quarry was ruled out because it came from the wrong side of the tectonic plate, meaning stone had to be sourced from quarries 50 miles away.

After 1,100 helicopter lifts of almost 1000 tonnes of stone, a £900,000 investment and five years of work, the path was completed last year.

As well as improvement and conservation work, the NLP five-year programme included the first excavation of Dun Deardail, a vitrified hillfort at the head of the Allt nan Gleannan valley, new paths leading to the rock climbing area of Polldubh Crags and work to improve drainage at the summit.

While the 19 projects, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, have been declared a major success, Pescod has warned a question mark over future financial backing means there is uncertainty over conservation and environmental projects on Ben Nevis and its surrounding glen.

“All the brilliant stuff over five years has tangible results, but the organisation behind it is at risk of collapsing,” he said.

“We are losing unbelievable experience and skill in staff because of the funding system.

“So many people want to visit Ben Nevis, but it needs investment to look after it.”