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National Nature Reserves - Part 1 - Beinn Eighe and Glen Affric

What are National Nature Reserves?

National Nature Reserves (NNRs) represent the jewels in the crown when it comes to the natural world and landscapes in the UK. They are an accolade that represent some of the best sites for wildlife. Whilst many of the reserves also have strong legal protection through conservation designations such as Special Protection Area (SPA), Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) (more on these another time), NNRs are unique in that access for people is fundamental in their site selection. In Scotland there are now a total of 43 NNRs, with two new sites, Glen Coe and Mar Lodge Estate, being declared over the summer of 2017. The following map shows the distribution of Scotland's NNR's (excluding the most recent sites yet to be added to the database).

National Nature Reserves are managed and owned by a variety of land managers including; public bodies such as the Forestry Commission and Scottish Natural Heritage, conservation organisations such as RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, National Trust and Woodland Trust and of course private and community owners.

I have worked in conservation in Scotland for a number of years now but I have yet to explore the North West Highlands so what better way to get to know the area than to to go on a weekend road trip to explore some of Scotland's grandest National Nature Reserves.

Glen Affric NNR

With substantial areas owned and managed by Forestry Commission Scotland, Glen Affric is one of the largest remaining areas of ancient Caledonian pine forest left in the UK. Dominated by the symbolic Scot's Pine (Pinus sylvestris), Caledonian pinewoods are the only native coniferous woodland in Scotland. It is a habitat which has undergone significant declines over time and there are few areas left of this ecologically valuable resource. It supports species that specialise in this habitat, such as capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) and the endemic Scottish Crossbill (Loxia scotica).

In Scotland, Ancient Woodland is defined as land that is currently wooded and has been continually wooded, at least since 1750. Scottish Natural Heritage outline that Ancient Woods are important because:

They include all remnants of Scotland’s original woodland; their flora and fauna may preserve elements of the natural composition of the original Atlantic forests.They usually have much richer wildlife than that of more recent woods.They preserve the integrity of soil ecological processes and associated biodiversity.Some have been managed by traditional methods for centuries and demonstrate an enduring relationship between people and nature.Woods and veteran trees are ancient monuments whose value to the local community and historians may be as great as that of the older buildings in a parish.Once destroyed, they cannot be recreated.

The amazing quality of the woodland and the surrounding habitat makes this area important for lots of different species. Part of the area is recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) which is designated for its woodland, lichens, dragonflies and breeding birds. The glen also forms part of a larger network of habitat which makes it a Special Protection Area (SPA) important for golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos)

Visiting Glen Affric gives a reminder of what others parts of Scotland would have looked like prior to the loss of large areas of native pinewoods. It is one of the most wooded Glens in Scotland and the walking trails and view points provide vistas of the great expanse of woodland and take you on routes close to stunning waterfalls.

Beinn Eighe & Loch Maree Islands

About 10 Years Ago I watched a BBC Natural World episode about Loch Maree in Wester Ross. The film showcased many of my favourite species I associate with the highlands but at the time had yet to see. White-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), black-throated diver (Gavia arctica) and pine marten (Martes martes) to name but a few. Since watching that programme I have always longed to visit the area to see if it is as beautiful in real life. I was not disappointed.

Beinn Eighe NNR, which is situated on the shore of Loch Maree, has the esteemed title of being the UK's oldest National Nature Reserve which was designated in 1951. The reserve has a visitor centre and well marked trails, including Britain's only way marked mountain trail.  Details  of the different trails can be found here. The reserve is characterised by a mosaic of different habitats from ancient native pine woodlands on the lower slopes all the way up to montane habitats on the high mountain tops.

Beinn Eighe is designated as a SSSI for its important geology, invertebrates, bryophytes, vascular plants, upland habitats and woodland. Walking along the trails gives you great views of a variety of different habitats both on the reserve and across the landscape. If you are lucky, as I was, you may also catch a glimpse of a soaring golden eagle looking for its next meal.

The islands of Loch Maree  are only visible further North West along the road towards Gairloch from Beinn Eighe. The drive provides a great opportunity to get a sense of the scale of the landscape and offers great views of the mighty mountain Slioch. The islands, which I only viewed from afar, look as though they have been untouched for many years. Their isolation is probably a key factor which makes them an important area for beetles, black-throated diver, dragonflies and vascular plants. The complex of habitats around Loch Maree are also designated as a SAC and are recognised for their european importance for otter, upland habitats including heath, scree and alpine habitats and woodland habitats.

For me it was a personal accomplishment to visit these two areas of unparalleled natural beauty. I was also entirely blessed with the weather as I had two crisp autumnal days.  Whilst they are both remote areas I would strongly encourage you to visit to both of these NNRs to experience what I believe to be some of the most beautiful parts of the UK.

Visit here for more information on Scotland's National Nature Reserves. Visit here for more information on Scotland's Pinewoods and here for more information on Ancient Woodland.

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