Last week volunteers from the Cairngorms Connect partnership made a three and a half mile hike, climbing around sixteen hundred feet to Loch A'an, between them carrying 3,000 montane willow saplings. RSPB Scotland's Stephen Magee was among the tree-transport party, here he tells us what it was like to make this epic journey, and what the hopes are for these little plants.

Assembling in the Cairngorm Ski Centre car park the atmosphere was a mix of school outward bound trip and scientific conference. A hardy group of volunteers including folk from all the organisations involved in Cairngorms Connect were excitedly milling around readying themselves for the day.

The plan was that around forty or so volunteers would lug three thousand willow saplings over a series of ridges and down into the spectacular setting of Loch A’an. The downy willow plants are a natural part of the mountain landscape, but centuries of over browsing from deer and livestock have seen them reduced to just a few individuals hanging on in the highest crags and gullies.

montane willow sapling in a special carry bag

Saplings have been grown from locally sourced seed and the hope is that carefully planned planting will give the little trees a kick start. Right now surviving trees are so few in number that they can’t cross pollinate and spread without our help.

I watched as volunteers loaded up their rucksacks with plants and trekked across the Cairngorm Plateau and down into the massive bowl that contains Loch A’an. Snow melt turned burns into torrents and spectacular waterfalls shot over the slabs at the head of the corrie.

People and a dog walking across a rocky landscape, with bags of small willow trees strapped to them

At the end of the journey the stockpile grew until there was an impressive group pf tiny trees, leaves waving in the mountain breeze. A few hardy souls cooled off with what must have been the highest wild swim in Scotland that day, plunging into the icy melt waters of the loch.

Chatting to RSPB staff as well as people from NatureScot and the wider Cairngorms Connect network it was clear these are the kinds of days that people working hard to deliver real change in our landscapes treasure. Much of the work is of necessity methodical and office based. Plans are made, environmental impacts assessed, funding secured.

On this sunny day all that work was worthwhile as a little piece of the wider projects jigsaw fell into place. Cairngorms Connect sets out a vision over 200 years, a vision that will link up habitats into a nature rich landscape that will tackle the nature and climate emergency.

But just for one day the simple of task of carrying a few tiny trees into their new home was more than enough to send a committed and enthusiastic group of volunteers back down the mountain with a sense they had done something to help.

A group of people sit in an amazing mountain landscape, a big patch of willow saplings ready to be planted is in front of them

This work is supported by the Endangered Landscapes Programme through Cairngorms Connect and also forms part of the wider 100% For Nature project funded by the LIFE Programme of the European Union, RSPB Scotland and NatureScot.

Videos from the day are on our twitter feed @RSPBScotland. Subscribe to our youtube channel RSPB VIDEO to see the longer film on the willow project here!