Ecological Briefing Notes 2019

Ourea Events mountain races are located in Britain’s greatest upland areas that often contain features of outstanding biodiversity value and importance. Occasionally, the features that provide this interest can be vulnerable to the wear and tear that may result from the passage of event participants. The risk of ecological damage is carefully assessed during early stages in the planning process for each event, when every effort is made to avoid sensitive ecological interest areas that could be disturbed by the event.  

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We are keen to encourage personal route selection choices by participants on our events to further avoid the risk of local ecological disturbance. This Ecological Briefing Note has been prepared for the 2019 Scottish Mountain Marathon (SMM) to identify key ecological interest features that contribute to the special character of the event area, with comments on personal route selection comments to help minimise the risk of localised ecological disturbance.

The 2019 SMM is located within an area of stunning Wester Ross landscape, rising from the coastal margin of Loch Carron in the west, across increasingly wild, rugged and mountainous terrain to the east. The event area is within part of Britain’s maritime uplands, where an oceanic climate has resulted in the development of extensive blanket bog habitats on lower level terrain. The typically severe weather conditions associated with the oceanic climate of the region maintains an extremely harsh upland environment across the hills and mountains that comprise much of the event area. The montane habitats that have developed within these conditions include many that are characteristic of arctic tundra.

The event area contains no specific sites that have been formally designated for their nature conservation importance. However, the entire area contributes to the special character and value of the Wester Ross landscape. This has been recognised through inclusion of the event area and surrounding countryside within the Wester Ross Biosphere Reserve. This designation is made by the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) Man and the Biosphere Programme, and as such forms part of a global network of important conservation sites.

The landscape of the event area has been formed from metamorphic rock strata known as the Moine series. These rocks were originally deposited around one billion years ago, then folded and altered by dramatic faulting movement of the earth’s crust. Subsequent glacial action by large glaciers moving westwards across the event area, has formed glaciated valleys, ridges and peaks throughout hills and mountains to the south, east and north east of the event area. The north and west of the event area has a less rugged topography, with deposition of glacial moraine creating more rounded landforms.

A variety of wildlife habitats characterise the event area. Less rugged land to the north and north east support extensive areas of deep blanket peat with blanket bog habitats. These include wet heath vegetation rich in Sphagnum mosses with many upland ponds and lakes (dubh lochans and hill lochs). Wet heath vegetation extends across more rocky ground where deep peat gives way to peaty soils. Habitats within these areas often include heather moorland and acid grassland on better drained ground. Small patches of semi-natural broadleaved woodland are present along several stream valleys that flow towards Attadale at the western edge of the event area. 

The high summits and ridges that form most of the event area to the south, east and north east contain a number of distinctive montane habitat types. These include montane grass heath and moss heath at the highest locations, often in combination with scree and boulderfield terrain. The folded and faulted geology of the Moine rocks is reflected in complex drainage conditions which includes a number of locations throughout the event area where groundwater seeps from fissures in underlying bedrock. These features can create groundwater springs and flushes that help to maintain localised habitats rich in mosses and liverworts. 

The glaciated origins of the event area landscape have created widespread rock outcrop features, ranging from ground level rock exposures to tall mountain crags. These upland habitats are often characterised by vegetation on rock ledges where a lack of deer and sheep grazing has enabled the survival of montane scrub, tall heath and wildflower rich vegetation. These locations often include seepage features, where damp and shaded rock fissures maintain vegetation rich in moss and liverwort species.

Habitats within the event area support a variety of wildlife species. Of particular relevance to the 2019 SMM are bird species that could be nesting at the time of the event. These include Red-throated Diver near dubh lochans and Black-throated Diver near hill lochs. High mountain crags provide nest sites for Golden Eagle, and lower-level outcrops are of potential interest for smaller birds of prey such as Merlin. Ground nesting birds will use open habitats such as blanket bog and heather moorland throughout the event area, including high level montane habitats. The lower reaches of many streams and rivers toward the western margin of the event area have the potential for use by Otter.

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The following comments provide guidance on personal route choice decisions by SMM participants that will help to minimise the risk of habitat and wildlife disturbance.

·      Dry acid grassland is a vegetation type that occurs at several locations within the event area. These areas provide a relatively robust vegetation type that can generally withstand the trampling effects of hill running. 

·      Areas of dry acid grassland can include mosaics of other upland vegetation types such as blanket bog, heather-dominated heath vegetation and wet acid grassland creating areas of local vulnerability to trampling by SMM participants. Upland vegetation mosaics can be of interest to ground-nesting birds, and as a consequence, care should be taken to avoid nest disturbance when crossing these areas. Existing paths are relatively scarce within the event area, but their use wherever where possible will help to minimise the risk of nest disturbance.

·      Blanket bog is an important habitat within the event area, mainly comprising vegetation that is typified by areas of wet heath vegetation interspersed with shallow pools, often associated with abundant Sphagnum mosses. These areas often comprise a mosaic of vegetation types that will include slightly raised areas of better drained peat with drier heather moorland vegetation. These will be far less vulnerable to disturbance through vegetation damage by trampling and should ideally be selected when making route choices for running through these intact blanket bog areas.

·      It is extremely important that runners avoid crossing the wettest blanket bog areas as trampling disturbance has the potential to significantly impact upon their ecological importance. 

·      Alpine spring and flush habitats occur throughout the event area where groundwater emerges at the surface as seepages across steeply sloping ground. These features can be of special nature conservation interest, in particular where groundwater seepages provide conditions for distinctive communities of mosses, liverworts and other specialised 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 dry acid grassland to by-pass wet grassland patches.

·      Alpine spring and flush habitats at groundwater seepages on steep ground can be difficult to avoid where they cross valuable lines for contour running. 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.

·      On hillsides, soil movements within acid grassland areas can develop well-defined micro-terrace systems, often referred to as sheep walks or trods. These typically follow contours and can provide extremely useful running lines. Vegetation at the edge of these micro-terraces is often friable and easily broken off. Care should be taken when using these features for contouring to avoid running on the edge of these terraces to minimise grassland damage.

·      Semi-natural broadleaved woodland of conservation interest is present within the event area, including broadleaved woodland within steep-sloping valley landforms. Many of the broadleaved woodlands are of great importance for the mosses, liverworts and lichens that grow on tree trunks and the woodland floor. The microclimate of ravine woodlands often maintains vegetation comprising highly specialised mosses, liverworts and other plants. 

·      SMM courses generally avoid the need to pass through or in close proximity to key areas of semi-natural woodland interest. Where SMM participants encounter small woodland fragments it is important that runners avoid crossing these or use existing paths if present. 

·      A variety of boulder field and scree habitats are present within the event area that are potentially vulnerable to disturbance. Ice-shattered boulder fields on the highest mountain tops often support fragile montane grass-heath and moss-heath plant communities of extremely high nature conservation value. Where existing paths through these areas are present, they should be used to avoid disturbance of these habitats. Blocky scree often supports specialised plant communities that utilise the microclimate of sheltered spaces within the scree. Where SMM participants need to cross these features they should always minimise disturbance of scree blocks.

·      Specialised rock fissure and ledge plant communities are present at a number of locations within the event area. If SMM participants need to negotiate low rock outcrops great care should be taken to minimise disturbance of ledge vegetation.

·      The event area has a substantial number of hill lakes and ponds that could be used by upland nesting birds of high conservation value. As many of these species use nesting locations within terrestrial habitats around pond and lake margins, SMM participants must take great care to ensure that nest sites are avoided if approaching ponds and lakes. As there is no need for SMM participants to enter any water body within the event area, it should be possible to avoid pond and lake margins.

·      The event area contains a complexnetwork of streams and rivers, some of which are potentially vulnerable to ecological disturbance from repeated crossing by runners. Some of the watercourses could support internationally and nationally threatened animal species such as otter. 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 SMM participants at stream crossings, preferring the use of bridges and stepping stones to minimise bank disturbance when entering and climbing out of stream channels.