Photograph: Martin Thackeray
Straddling the east and west Highlands between Glen Spean and Newtonmore, the Creag Meagaidh massif is well known as a great high-level walk, with a total of three Munros. It is also a noted location for winter climbing â€“ some say second only to Ben Nevis in Scotland.
But wider exploration of this National Nature Reserve reveals even more than that. Most peopleâ€™s introduction to Creag Meagaidh is on the walk in from the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) base at Aberarder, with an excellent trail following the valley of the Allt Coire Ardair through a gradually changing landscape. Here, birch and rowan are slowly gaining a roothold on the heathery slopes, helping to fulfil SNHâ€™s primary management aim for the reserve.
Such woodland regeneration has seen the return of a range of wildlife, not least black grouse. These striking birds prefer a mix of maturing broadleaved woodland and an expanding natural regeneration zone with plenty of young trees and patches of heath and bog along the woodland edge.
The trail continues to the cavernous Coire Ardair, its 450-metre-high walls towering above. These imposing crags â€“ beloved by ice climbers â€“ shelter important plant species such as downy and woolly willow. This montane willow scrub is extremely rare in Europe, with Creag Meagaidh one of only 10 designated sites in the UK for the habitat. The low-growing willows are easily suppressed by high grazing levels, so deer management on the reserve is in part designed to help these plants thrive well into the future.
However, it is perhaps the summit that is the main attraction for many people, with Creag Meagaidhâ€™s central location offering a 360-degree panorama across the Cairngorms, Monadhliaths and to Ben Nevis and the Knoydart hills in the west.
As well as offering fine views, the mossy summit plateau is home to another special bird â€“ dotterel. A brightly-coloured plover, the dotterel is a summer visitor to Scotland. One of the hazards of living in such an open habitat is the vulnerability of nests to damage and disturbance. Hill walkers can do their bit by ensuring that dogs are kept under close control from May to August and by being aware of any distress behaviour by the birds and moving away accordingly.
Reserve Manager, Creag Meagaidh NNR, Scottish Natural Heritage
(Google map) Creag Meagaidh lies on the north shore of Loch Laggan, half-way along the A86 between Fort William and Newtonmore. From the car park, a series of paths explore the lower slopes. The walk to Coire Ardair is a 6.5-mile (10.4km) round-trip along and beyond the Allt Dubh Trail, although there are shorter routes available on the Alderwood Trail (0.7 miles/1.1km) and An Sidhean Trail (0.6 miles/1km). www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/creag-meagaidh
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This image appeared in our Winter 2012 issue.