By Eilidh Milne
In February I spent a day in Applecross shadowing vegetation ecologist Dr Diana Gilbert who was giving habitat improvement advice to a client. One of Diana’s suggestions was for a trial planting of Prostrate Juniper. We’d spent the morning searching a hillside adjacent to the Bealach Na Ba for these modest little shrubs, which due to their mat-forming growing habit, were hard to spot until you were almost on top of them.
Upright Juniper– to which prostrate juniper is a subspecies, is one of only three native conifer species in Britain alongside Scots Pine and Yew. Both upright and prostrate species have seen an alarming decline in the UK in recent years and are therefore designated a UK Biodiversity Action Plan ‘priority species’. Prostrate juniper is even more limited in geographical extent than common juniper and is largely confined to exposed hillsides on the west coast of Scotland, as well as high-altitude areas in Cumbria and North Wales. Both species have been impacted by habitat loss, with the ‘montane scrub’ habitat that supports both species (and where prostrate juniper is almost exclusively found), being decimated in Scotland (and the rest of the UK).
1: Prostrate juniper in Applecross
What is Montane Scrub?
Montane scrub is a habitat consisting of dwarf trees and stunted shrubbery that grows between the treeline and the open hillside in non-arid mountain ranges. As well as Juniper, common species include willows (woolly, downy and mountain) and dwarf birch, as well as wildflowers such as alpine blue sowthistle and wood cranesbill. The habitat is an important foraging area for mountain birds and mammals; supports a variety of insects, mosses, and lichens; and provides shelter for birds such as the Brambling and the Bluethroat to breed.
In Scotland, this habitat has been largely lost as a result of overgrazing of red deer and sheep, as well as excessive muirburn. The loss of the montane scrub habitat and the wide range of ecological niches it supports means a significantly less biodiverse mountain area. The loss of this habitat also impacts the hydrology of mountain areas, with flooding and increased sedimentation being more prevalent due to the loss of the deep root systems of dwarf trees.
I was lucky enough to see what healthy montane scrub and treeline vegetation communities look like on a trip to Norway in the summer of 2022. While the majesty of Scotland’s hills never fails to impress, it cannot be denied that many of our ‘wild’ mountain areas are unnaturally barren and ecologically monocultural, and this stands in stark contrast to the green and flourishing mountain areas in Norway.
2: Walking in the Dovrefjell mountain range and National Park in central Norway.
Projects to restore Scotland’s montane scrub and treeline habitat are gaining popularity, with many private estates and charities taking steps to breathe life back into sub-alpine mountain zones. As ecologists, understanding the value of this habitat and factoring it into habitat improvement advice is one small way in which we can support a return to a more biodiverse and varied mountain landscape.