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The Pollution Threatening Scottish Highland Habitats

The Scottish Highland mountains are famous for breathtaking beauty and offer some of the most remote and unspoilt landscapes in the UK. For this reason, regions such as Glencoe are hugely popular with hikers and tourists. While visitors to the mountains are welcomed, it can occasionally create some problems.


Some of the most common recent concerns include congestion on the narrow Highland roads, path erosion, and strain on parking and public conveniences. However, a recent report in the Daily Record highlights a more unusual problem: mourners scattering ashes on the mountainsides.


The newspaper reports that Mountaineering Scotland have asked people to refrain from scattering ashes at the most popular beauty spots because they can alter the chemical composition of the soil. It is a common misconception that ashes nourish the soil and help plants to grow.


Human ashes are highly alkaline and contain high amounts of phosphate and sodium, which can discourage the growth of plants and trees, or overstimulate the growth of certain species, causing an imbalance to the delicate upland ecosystem.


Ashes can also become washed into streams, rivers and lakes, causing water pollution and harming fish and other wildlife. For this reason, conservationists are asking mourners to bury ashes rather than scatter them. They also request that no caskets or other containers or tributes are left at the site.


Advice from Mountaineering Scotland said: “On a number of very popular mountain summits that are used repeatedly for the scattering of ashes one of the significant effects that has been observed is stimulation of plant growth that can be attributed to both phosphate enrichment and changes in pH [acidity/alkalinity].”


“So, when considering your chosen spot for the disposal of your own ashes it might be worth avoiding the really iconic mountain tops, by opting instead for a corrie, a certain point along a ridge, or beside a particular tree on the lower slopes of a mountain.”


“It is worth bearing in mind, however, that ashes do not have to be scattered. Their chemical effect on the ecology of the surrounding area is reduced if they are buried rather than scattered.”


Air pollution is another issue that is causing serious damage to some of Scotland’s most precious natural habitats. A Plantlife paper published in 2020 found that 80% of the land with special conservation areas is polluted with intolerable nitrogen levels. This is causing severe damage to biodiversity.


Researchers from Plantlife Scotland measured nitrogen from vehicle exhausts in snow-bed mosses on Bidean nam Bian, part of the mountain range on the south side of Glen Coe. The Lichens and mosses are particularly sensitive and there is evidence that elevated levels of nitrogen have already led to a loss of diversity.


Plantlife recommends that nitrogen levels could be lowered by changes to farming practices. However, nitrogen can travel via the air from transport and power stations, and is now reaching more remote locations. Scotland contains 90% of the UK’s high mountain habitats and also contains some of the rarest plants and animals.


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