Conival and some montane rarities

April 15th 2019

These first two landscape photographs were taken on 31stMarch 2019, looking east from the A837 beside Loch Assynt.  On the skyline, under light snow cover, is Conival, the highest hill in Assynt (photo 1); it lies about 5km east of Inchnadamph, and is, at 987m (3254ft), our only Munro.

About 1.5km to the east, along a ridge, is Ben More Assynt, slightly higher, at 998m (3273ft), but, regrettably, never part of Assynt, since the parish boundary runs north from the summit of Conival.  It is shown as a closely-dotted line on the 1947 edition of Bartholomew’s Half-inch Map (photo 2).  This boundary is also that of West and East Sutherland, divisions of the old county of Sutherland, or vice-counties (108 and 107), which have been used for botanical recording for well over a century.  There has been some confusion in the past as to which vice-county should take credit for plants found on the summit ridge of Conival, but with the advent of GPS this is now less of a problem.

The south-west face of Conival (NC3019, photo 3) has a 40 degree slope composed of screes and crags.  It rises some 500m (1640ft) from Am Bealach or Bealach Traligill, the pass between the Traligill and Oykell catchments.  Unsurprisingly, this part of Conival had apparently never been botanised.  That is, until the 17th August 2006, when friend Gordon Rothero, who was staying with us at the time, took it on. I recently came across photographs he took, on the challenging climb, of two of our rarest montane plants.  They are alpine saxifrage Saxifraga nivalis, and arctic mouse-ear Cerastium nigrescens.

Alpine saxifrage has a distinctive rosette of leaves that are purplish-red beneath, with rounded teeth on the edges (photo 4), and white flowers in a tight cluster (photo 5).  It was first recorded in Assynt by Gordon on 9thJuly 1999, when he found three rosettes on the vertical wall of the gulley between Meall Meadhonach and Meall Beag at the eastern end of Suilven (NC1617), another site almost certainly never previously botanised.  I had been with him at the western end of the hill that day, but had retreated to the path at the base of the north side, since I never was a climber.

Alpine saxifrage occurs on the ledges of mountain crags, usually in shaded sites where the rock is strongly base-rich.  Elsewhere in West Sutherland it has been found only on a band of limestone at the base of Creagan Meall Horn and on Ben Hope.  It is virtually confined to Highland Scotland, with isolated outliers in the Borders, Cumbria and North Wales.

Arctic mouse-ear (photo 6) is a handsome member of its genus, with white-petalled flowers up to 30mm across and elliptical leaves that are softly hairy, not densely as in the closely-related alpine mouse-ear Cerastium alpinum.  Gordon found it first that day on the upper part of the south-west face (NC303397) and later on the western side of the summit ridge (NC301201), where he also had another rare montane species, curved woodrush Luzula arcuata.

This was not the first Assynt record of arctic mouse-ear, since a distinguished 19th century botanist, Charles E. Salmon, had found it on Canisp ‘at about 2500ft’ in the summer of 1899; it has not been seen there since.  There is also a specimen collected by him on 31stJuly of that year labelled ‘Conival’, although whether from West or East Sutherland we cannot be sure. It has been found on the eastern side of Conival, in East Sutherland, three times since, in 1908, 1959 and 2012, but Gordon’s records are the first confirmed ones from the western side of the boundary; he was also responsible for that in 2012.

Arctic mouse-ear is virtually restricted to the Highlands, apart from an outlier in North Wales, and is usually found above 800m.  The only other records from West Sutherland are old ones from Foinaven and Ben Hope.

The last photograph (7) was taken by Gordon during his climb and shows the Breabag ridge south of Am Bealach.  The area immediately above the pass was botanised by Gordon, Pat and I on 30thAugust 1998, with interesting results, but the rest, straddling the boundary between West Sutherland and East Ross (vice-county 106), has never, so far as I know, been recorded.  Something for the next generation to tackle.

Ian M. Evans

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