News - Wed 11th May 2016 - Participant Ecological Briefing - Cape Wrath Ultra

Participant Ecological Briefing

11th May 2016

The Cape Wrath Ultra™ passes through some of Scotland’s most outstanding upland landscapes, recognised as areas of national and international importance for their upland wildlife habitats, flora and fauna. The majority of the Cape Wrath Ultra™ follows hill tracks, paths and roads to provide access to these special mountain landscapes without the risk of disturbance to their special habitats, vegetation and wildlife.

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Delicate vegetation and a loch side path: Keep to the path! © Ben Winston

At a few locations along the Cape Wrath Ultra™ route it will be necessary for participants to choose their own routes through areas of ecological sensitivity - generally where there is a lack of hill paths and tracks, and near riverbanks and lochbanks. For these sections of the route we are keen to encourage personal micro-route selection - this will ensure that Cape Wrath Ultra™ participants enjoy experiencing the special landscapes of the North West Highlands and avoid the risk of localised ecological disturbance. This Ecological Briefing Note has been prepared for the 2016 Cape Wrath Ultra™  event to identify key features that contribute to the special ecological value of the event area, with route selection comments to help minimise the risk of localised ecological disturbance.

The 2016 Cape Wrath Ultra™ passes through an area of the western and north western highlands of Scotland that contains some of Britain’s most varied and iconic mountain regions. This is an ancient landscape that comprises some of the oldest rocks on earth, in places formed over three billion years ago. More recent influences from widespread and repeated glaciation has created a rugged landscape of deep glacial valleys, high pyramidal peaks and remote glacial corries. 

Towards the northern end of the route the Cape Wrath Ultra™ crosses coastal locations of considerable nature conservation importance.  These include machair grassland, a vegetation type of extraordinary botanical diversity. Scotland’s north west includes locations of international importance for the conservation of this highly specialised coastal grassland.

The northern latitude and generally elevated altitude of the landscape crossed by the Cape Wrath Ultra™ route combine to create a harsh environment that has enabled the development of vegetation and habitats with a distinct arctic and alpine character that consists of highly specialised arctic-alpine plant species. These comprise a post-glacial relict flora of international importance that is very slow-growing and potentially vulnerable to significant damage by the disturbance effects of trampling. However, the Cape Wrath Ultra™ route has been designed to maximize the use of hill paths and tracks, minimizing the need for participants to cross trackless montane vegetation and habitat.

The principal vegetation and habitat types that present along the route of the Cape Wrath Ultra™ are briefly described below, with comments on their potential vulnerability to disturbance from trampling.

•    Dry acid grassland is an extensive vegetation type within the Cape Wrath Ultra™ area, formed where centuries of livestock grazing has converted heather moorland to open grassland. These areas provide a relatively robust vegetation type that can generally withstand the trampling effects of fell running. Extensive areas of this vegetation can be of importance as nesting habitat for upland breeding birds. As the Cape Wrath Ultra™ takes place during the bird nesting season, care must be taken when crossing these areas to avoid disturbance of nests, eggs or young birds that can be difficult to see because of their camouflage.

•    Areas of wet acid grassland will be encountered where impeded drainage occurs within relatively level acid grassland areas or where groundwater emerges at the surface as spring-head seepages across more steeply sloping ground. Wet acid grassland can be of special nature conservation interest, in particular where groundwater seepages provide conditions for communities of specialised mosses, liverworts and other plants. These vegetation types can be vulnerable to persistent disturbance effects of trampling and should ideally be avoided wherever possible by selecting routes that keep to surrounding dry grassland to by-pass wet acid grassland patches. As with dry acid grassland, areas of this vegetation can be of importance as nesting habitat for upland breeding birds, and can provide important feeding areas for ground nesting birds. Care must be taken when crossing these areas to avoid disturbance of nests, eggs or young birds that can be difficult to see because of their camouflage.

•    Wet acid grassland at spring-head seepages on steep ground can be difficult to avoid where they cross valuable contouring lines. Complete avoidance of these areas could involve a significant route change and deviation from the desired contour level. Despite this, it would be ideal if damage to seepage zone vegetation could be minimised, often located within shallow gulleys, re-entrant features or associated with ground level rock outcrops that cross steep slopes. Because of the extraordinary geological variety encountered at locations along the Cape Wrath Ultra™ route, some of the most important high level nature conservation features have developed where spring seepages create significant differences in groundwater alkalinity. These locations support diverse communities of extremely rare mosses, liverworts and other plants and their trampling by Cape Wrath Ultra™ participants must be avoided.

•    On hillsides, soil movements within dry acid grassland areas can develop well-defined micro-terrace systems, often called sheep walks or trods. These typically lie parallel to contours and can provide extremely useful running lines. Grassland vegetation at the edge of these micro-terraces is often friable and easily dislodged. Care should be taken when using these features for contouring to avoid running on terrace edges to minimise grassland damage. At locations along the Cape Wrath Ultra™ these features have developed because of many thousands of years of freeze-thaw soil movements and are important relict features of Scotland’s post-glacial montane environment. Areas of saturated ground can occur where groundwater issues into terrace formations. These locations are especially vulnerable to running damage and should be avoided where possible.

•    Sub-montane vegetation along the Cape Wrath Ultra™ route includes tracts of dry and wet heath. Areas of dry heath are relatively robust in terms of resistance to disturbance effects of trampling, but wet heath areas can be more vulnerable. These often grade into areas of bog vegetation on deeper peat that combine to create areas of particular upland ecological interest. Wherever possible participants should avoid crossing wet heath vegetation when choosing running routes. If crossing these areas cannot be avoided then running lines should try to link patches of drier vegetation that will be less vulnerable to disturbance effects of trampling.

•    Extensive areas of sub-montane and montane dry and wet heath can provide extremely important nesting and feeding habitat for upland breeding birds. Care must be taken when crossing these areas to avoid disturbance of nests, eggs or young birds that can be difficult to see because of their camouflage.

•    Mountain summits and ridges within the event area have significant tracts of montane grassland and heath vegetation that includes important high-level ice-shattered boulderfield. These areas comprise relict post-glacial vegetation that are of very high ecological interest and consist of very slow-growing grass, sedge, rush, moss and lichen species. Disturbance of these areas by trampling typically has long-lasting impacts and can trigger erosion of adjacent vegetation areas in the harsh climate of summits and high ridges where this vegetation is found. The vegetation of these areas has often developed within periglacial patterned ground features such as stone polygons and stone stripes that are important upland geomorphological features that are also vulnerable to trampling disturbance. Wherever possible participants should follow existing paths through these areas to avoid trampling damage to pristine montane vegetation.

•    The Cape Wrath Ultra™ route passes through an area of the Scottish north west highlands that includes a number of locations of international woodland nature conservation importance. These include remnant Caledonian Pineforest and tracts of important upland Oak, Birch and Alder woodland. Because of the cold, damp Oceanic climate of the region, these woodland locations are of particular importance for the diverse communities of moss, liverwort and lichen species that they contain. These plants have colonized the woodland floor and tree stems and are extremely sensitive to trampling disturbance. Decaying deadwood is an important component of the nature conservation interest of these habitats and should be left undisturbed. Most significant woodland nature conservation sites along the Cape Wrath Ultra™ route are crossed using existing tracks and paths, helping to minimise the risk of ecological disturbance.

•    The special upland ecological interest of the Cape Wrath Ultra™ event area includes vegetation of rock outcrop ledges and seepage zones. Many of these locations are known to be important for the relict post-glacial flora that they contain, protected from significant grazing by their inaccessibility. While most of the taller outcrops will not be accessed by Cape Wrath Ultra™ participants, route selection might include crossing areas of low rock outcrop that are still of value for these uncommon upland plant communities. Where this terrain is crossed great care should be taken to avoid disturbance to fragile ledge vegetation.

•    A number of upland lochs are present within the event area that are of extremely high ecological importance. In many cases this importance is associated with use of lochs and loch margins as nesting and feeding habitat by several extremely rare wetland bird species. Nesting locations used by these birds are typically selected in heath vegetation close to the lake margins and as a consequence Cape Wrath Ultra participants must avoid these areas. The majority of these features are passed by using existing hill tracks and paths, but participants must avoid these locations if crossing areas where paths are either absent or not well-defined

•    The event area contains a complex network of streams and rivers, some of which are potentially vulnerable to ecological disturbance from crossing by runners. Some of the rivers close to the Cape Wrath Ultra route are covered by very high level nature conservation designations, including watercourses that support internationally and nationally threatened animal species such as Otter and Freshwater Pearl Mussel. In many cases, the nature conservation interest of these rivers and streams concerns use of the banksides by these animals. As a consequence, great care should be taken by Cape Wrath Ultra™ participants at stream crossings, minimising bank disturbance when entering and climbing out of stream channels.

•    The northern end of the Cape Wrath Ultra™ route leaves the mountains and passes through a section of remote coastal landscape that includes a number of locations with sand dune systems, dune grassland and machair grassland. These locations are of very high nature conservation importance for the very specialised and rare vegetation types that they contain. These sites are of particular interest as they contain coastal grassland vegetation at their most northern location in Britain. The vegetation within these sites have a very fragile ecology and are extremely vulnerable to trampling damage and should be avoided by Cape Wrath Ultra™ participants where possible. 

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Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints! © Ben Winston

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