Loch A’an: A landscape of hope

Earlier this year, downy willow saplings were planted on the shores of Loch A’an in the Cairngorms. RSPB Visitor Experience Officer, Megan Jones, joined the Cairngorms Connect monitoring team to check in on these intrepid young trees, and reflects on her own relationship with this landscape of hope. 

Water cascades down steep granite gullies, echoing within the otherwise silent glen. Such fierce drops and scree slopes. Rock standing strong since glaciers carved them into being. A few patches of snow reside on the northern slopes, holding onto the promise of winter - just as the summer plumage of a sighted ptarmigan had patches of white beneath the grey. Low cloud glides effortlessly below us before climbing up the near vertical mountain face behind the shelter stone at the head of Loch A‘an. Such transient views, revealing-then-concealing different spaces of the grand central chasm of the plateau.

A small group of people look down into the clouds covering the Loch A'an valley

Image (above): The Cairngorms Connect Monitoring team begin the long steep descent into the Loch A'an basin. Credit: Megan Jones

As we descend towards the Loch, following the tumbling flow of one of the burns, we become immersed in lush vegetation thriving off the water laden slopes. The vegetation is taller and leafier than the arctic alpine species found on the plateau where moss campion, mountain azalea and alpine lady’s-mantle decorate the low-lying rocky landscape.

We begin to see trees emerging through this growth, with rowan in particular surging up past my head in places where large rocks provide protection from exposure and grazing. Ferns, grasses, blaeberry, and heather fill the spaces between the rocks along with pools of blooming bog asphodel whose radiant yellow beautifully complements the lilac harebells. Looking more closely you find devil’s-bit scabious, low-lying juniper entangled within the heather, mats of arctic eyebright, and the humble downy willow.  

In the foreground are bright yellow stars - out of focus bog asphodel, and in the background lilac flowers - harebells

Image (above): Bog asphodel and harebells frame the view down to Loch A'an. Credit: Megan Jones. 

Downy willow is a native tree specially adapted for life in the extreme climate of the Cairngorms. With the natural tree limit being around 750 metres, much of the shores of Loch A’an would have once been populated by trees including these hardy downy willows. During June, 3000 of these saplings were carried to the Loch shores to help aid the continued restoration of native forest here. Over the 200-year vision of Cairngorms Connect, we hope to see the vegetation become ever more lush, complex, and resilient as it sequesters carbon and provides rich habitats for a wide variety of species.

Close up image of small green leaves on a small downy willow sapling

Image (above): A planted downy willow sapling, Loch A'an. Credit: Megan Jones.

The evolving landscape here in the heart of the Cairngorms brings great joy, especially as we are already beginning to see signs of its journey towards a more luscious state. Slowing down and recognising these riches as we move through the landscape enhances the experience and appreciation of being in the mountains. Hearing the bellowing sound of the cascading waterfalls, stumbling upon pockets of vibrant flora, and becoming immersed in the miniature forests of moss. Feeling the wind in your hair and the ever-enduring ground under your feet.

Building our connection to nature and cultivating a deeper love for our environment is pivotal in addressing the climate and ecological crisis. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass: “restoring the land without restoring relationship is an empty exercise. It is the relationship that will endure and relationship that will sustain the restored land”.

The small lilac flowers of arctic eyebright

Image (above): Arctic eyebright. Credit: Megan Jones.

As the centre piece of the Cairngorms National Park, the Cairngorm plateau attracts many people to see and experience its grandeur. It’s easy to look past a landscape’s health: the unique flora and fauna and its upmost importance. Spending time in the mountains, I’ve learnt to stop every once in a while, and notice the delicate vegetation around my feet. I see the trees popping up and imagine how the landscape will evolve. Spending time exploring the mountains, particularly this summer, has been a great privilege and joy - especially finally visiting Loch A’an. It has served as a refuge from any worries or troubles, providing space and solace to simply be. I am truly excited to watch the regeneration of trees around its shores and hope that can be shared with others that feel a sincere respect and gratitude for such a special place.

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