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Special Areas of Conservation


Designated Special Area of Conservation (SAC)
Country Scotland
Unitary Authority Highlands and Islands, North Eastern Scotland
Centroid* NN995993
Latitude 57.07666667
Longitude -3.654166667
SAC EU Code UK0016412
Status Designated Special Area of Conservation (SAC)
Area (ha) 57691.73
* This is the approximate central point of the SAC. In the case of large, linear or composite sites, this may not represent the location where a feature occurs within the SAC.
Location of Cairngorms SAC

General site character

  • Inland water bodies (Standing water, Running water) (2.1%)
  • Bogs, Marshes, Water fringed vegetation, Fens (10%)
  • Heath, Scrub, Maquis and Garrigue, Phygrana (42.7%)
  • Dry grassland, Steppes (2.2%)
  • Humid grassland, Mesophile grassland (1%)
  • Alpine and sub-Alpine grassland (16%)
  • Improved grassland (1%)
  • Other arable land (1%)
  • Broad-leaved deciduous woodland (1%)
  • Coniferous woodland (13%)
  • Mixed woodland (1%)
  • Inland rocks, Screes, Sands, Permanent Snow and ice (8%)
  • Other land (including Towns, Villages, Roads, Waste places, Mines, Industrial sites) (1%)

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Note When undertaking an appropriate assessment of impacts at a site, all features of European importance (both primary and non-primary) need to be considered.

Annex I habitats that are a primary reason for selection of this site

  • The Cairngorm mountains contain the highest oligotrophic waterbodies in the UK. This complex of lochs has a range of high altitude conditions. The very highest waters (corrie and plateau lochs at >900 m) have rocky substrates and very low nutrient status, and suffer the harshest climate. In combination, these factors lead to low species diversity and the absence of aquatic macrophytes. This is an extreme variation of the habitat type. Lochs in the valley floors enjoy more sheltered conditions and the occurrence of finer sediments allows limited establishment of higher plants, although these are still extremely oligotrophic systems. Key species for this habitat type are present in Loch Einich (altitude 500 m), which supports quillwort Isoetes lacustris and shoreweed Littorella uniflora. The rare six-stamened waterwort Elatine hexandra has also been recorded here. The lochs in this area are classified as Type 3 or in some cases Type 2.

  • The Cairngorms is representative of Northern Atlantic wet heaths with Erica tetralix in north-east Scotland and has the largest extent of this habitat in this part of the UK. M16 Erica tetralixSphagnum compactum wet heath is the most extensive community. The site is notable for the occurrence, at high elevation, of this eastern vegetation type, more typically associated with southern lowland heaths. The more oceanic M15 Scirpus cespitosusErica tetralix wet heath is also present, occupying the more strongly-flushed soils. It is the presence of undisturbed lichen-rich wet heath occupying wet hollows within high-altitude, windswept 4060 Alpine and Boreal heaths that is of particular importance. Wet heath is also developed in hollows within the upper parts of 91C0 Caledonian forest, within blanket mire and dry heath, giving a variety of ecological transitions. The rare montane ground-beetle Amara alpina is associated with wet heath in the Cairngorms, feeding on seed-heads of deergrass Trichophorum cespitosum.

  • The Cairngorms has the largest extent of European dry heaths in the UK and is representative of the upland heaths of the cool and less oceanic north-east of Scotland. The site contains extensive examples of all the heath types characteristic of the eastern Highlands and is representative of the heathland in this area. The principal NVC types present are H12 Calluna vulgarisVaccinium myrtillus heath, H18 Vaccinium myrtillusDeschampsia flexuosa heath and H16 Calluna vulgarisArctostaphylos uva-ursi heath. These communities mainly occur on acid soils and are species-poor. The main exceptions to this are areas of species-rich H10 Calluna vulgarisErica cinerea heath, developed on base and/or lime-rich soils at Inchrory. The Cairngorms holds the most extensive well-developed snow-bed forms of VacciniumDeschampsia heath in the SAC series. There are widespread transitions to wet heath, woodland, juniper scrub and 4060 Alpine and Boreal heaths.

  • The Cairngorms is the superlative example of the relatively continental hills of the eastern Scottish Highlands. It has the full range of heath types characteristic of the area and the most extensive tracts of Alpine and Boreal heaths in the UK. There is the best development of eastern lichen-rich heaths, coupled with a range of snow-bed heaths that are better developed than on any other site. H13 Calluna vulgarisCladonia arbuscula heath includes a large area in which there is a co-dominance of heather Calluna vulgaris and bearberry Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, an unusual kind of heath which occurs most extensively on the Cairngorms. H19 Vaccinium myrtillusCladonia arbuscula heath is dominated by mixtures of mountain crowberry Empetrum nigrum ssp. hermaphroditum, bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus, cowberry V. vitis-idaea and, unusually, trailing azalea Loiseleuria procumbens. H20 Vaccinium myrtillusRacomitrium lanuginosum heath is also extensive, taking the habitat type up to its highest altitude in the UK. Calluna-rich and Vaccinium-rich forms of H22 Vaccinium myrtillusRubus chamaemorus heath are more extensive than on any other site, and snow-bed forms of H18 Vaccinium myrtillusDeschampsia flexuosa heath are also well-developed. There is extensive development of heath on solifluction terracing. These alpine heaths give way below to alpine forms of H12 Calluna vulgarisVaccinium myrtillus heath and H16 Calluna vulgarisArctostaphylos uva-ursi heath; the latter community being largely restricted to north-east Scotland. There are also transitions to 4030 European dry heaths at lower altitude, 5130 Juniperus communis formations, 4010 Northern Atlantic wet heaths and 6150 Siliceous alpine and boreal grasslands and late snow-bed vegetation. This is the single most outstanding site for high-altitude acidic habitats in the UK.

  • The Cairngorms has the third-largest extent of juniper Juniperus communis formations in the UK and is one of several sites representing the habitat type in north-east Scotland. The site is exceptional for the wide range of ecological situations in which juniper occurs. Creag Fhiaclach is unique in having the most natural altitudinal tree-line in the UK. At around 640 m there is mixed tree-line woodland with stunted Scots pine Pinus sylvestris and juniper, giving way at higher altitude to alpine juniper scrub. The alpine juniper scrub is developed extensively and often occurs in a stunted form transitional between ssp. communis and ssp. nana. On most of the site juniper occurs on acidic granite, while at Inchrory juniper occurs on both neutral and calcareous soils. Juniper also occurs at the margins and as part of the understorey of 91C0 Caledonian forest within the site.

  • The Cairngorms complex (Cairngorms, eastern Cairngorms, Northern Corries and Inchrory) has the largest tracts of Siliceous alpine and boreal grasslands in the UK, developed on granite and, more locally, base-poor schist up to very high altitudes (above 1000 m). The total extent is more than twice that on any other site in the UK. The full range of sub-types on acidicsoils is well developed and they are widespread. Both U10 Carex bigelowiiRacomitrium lanuginosum moss-heath and U7 Nardus strictaCarex bigelowii grass-heath are extensive. The U9 Juncus trifidusRacomitrium lanuginosum rush-heath community is particularly well-developed, becoming predominant on the higher plateau, and its extent far exceeds that on any other site in the UK. The stands of U8 Carex bigelowiiPolytrichum alpinum sedge-heath are among the most extensive in the UK. The late-lie moss snow-beds (U11 Polytrichum norvegicumKiaeria starkei snow-bed and U12 Salix herbaceaRacomitrium heterostichum snow-bed) are the most extensive and well-developed in Britain. The U14 Alchemilla alpinaSibbaldia procumbens dwarf-herb community is also well-represented.

  • The Cairngorms is representative of the most eastern forms of species-rich Nardus grasslands in the UK. Both CG10 Festuca ovinaAgrostis capillarisThymus praecox grassland and CG11 Festuca ovinaAgrostis capillarisAlchemilla alpina grassland are well-represented through an altitudinal range of 300750 m, associated with calcareous and basic schists. There are particularly extensive examples at Inchrory on calcareous schist, but the community occurs elsewhere, notably at Craig an Dail Beag and in Glen Feshie. Swards also occur on alluvial soils in the bottoms of many of the main glens. At Inchrory both northern and southern species are well represented, including species characteristic of both species-rich Nardus and 6210 Semi-natural dry grasslands and scrubland facies on calcareous substrates (Festuco-Brometalia). The most abundant of the southern species is common rockrose Helianthemum nummularium; others include burnet saxifrage Pimpinella saxifraga and blue fleabane Erigeron acer. Green-winged orchid Orchis morio has also been recorded. Northern species include yellow saxifrage Saxifraga aizoides and hair sedge Carex capillaris, both of which are locally abundant in flushed grasslands at Inchrory. Mountain everlasting Antennaria dioica, alpine meadow-rue Thalictrum alpinum, alpine saw-wort Saussurea alpina and the rare alpine milk-vetch Astragalus alpinus and alpine cinquefoil Potentilla crantzii, are also present.

  • 7130 Blanket bogs (* if active bog)  * Priority feature

    The Cairngorms support extensive areas of blanket bog both on the lower slopes, where it gives way to 4010 Northern Atlantic wet heath and 4030 European dry heaths as the gradient increases, and at high altitude. This contrasts with most other sites, which tend to be dominated by bogs of more limited altitudinal range. At low altitude bogs occur along valleysides and in depressions amongst the undulating glacial deposits and there are good examples of M18 Erica tetralixSphagnum papillosum blanket mire. Where bogs occur within or adjacent to 91C0 Caledonian forest, Scots pine Pinus sylvestris is often present, forming stands of 91D0 Bog woodland. These bogs are generally rich in the bog-mosses Sphagnum capillifolium and S. papillosum. On the Cairngorms blanket bog probably extends to a higher altitude than on any other SAC in the UK, around 1000 m. The bogs at higher altitude are M19 Calluna vulgarisEriophorum vaginatum blanket mire and some of these are moderately extensive on the gently sloping plateaux below the mountain tops. Above about 850 m, heather Calluna vulgaris disappears from the blanket bog and is replaced by mountain crowberry Empetrum nigrum ssp. hermaphroditum and bog bilberry Vaccinium uliginosum. Dwarf birch Betula nana occurs locally in this higher-altitude bog. Lichens of the reindeer group (Cladonia arbuscula and C. rangiferina) are abundant, and the Cairngorms have some of the best examples of lichen-rich bogs.

  • The Cairngorms is one of three sites representing upland petrifying springs with tufa formation in north-east Scotland. The springs occur particularly at Inchrory, where there is an extensive series of springs associated with metamorphosed limestones and calc-schists. There are transitions to 7230 Alkaline fens, 6230 Species-rich Nardus grasslands and more acidic grassland and heath communities.

  • The Cairngorms is one of two sites in the eastern Scottish Highlands representing alpine pioneer formations of lime and/or base-rich mires at moderately high altitude. Due to the predominance of acidic rocks within the Cairngorms complex this habitat is very restricted in extent, occurring mainly in the Inchrory area, associated with calcareous rocks and occurring alongside 7220 petrifying springs and 7230 alkaline fen. A small representation is also present in Glen Feshie. Despite this restricted distribution, these flushes are well-developed. They contain a range of characteristic species, including yellow saxifrage Saxifraga aizoides, Scottish asphodel Tofieldia pusilla, three-flowered rush Juncus triglumis and alpine rush J. alpinoarticulatus. Sheathed sedge Carex vaginata is also present. The main NVC type present is M11 Carex demissaSaxifraga aizoides mire.

  • The Cairngorms complex contains representative examples of high altitude siliceous scree communities characteristic of the eastern Scottish Highlands. Extensive areas of scree occur on granite at a range of altitudes in the Cairngorms. The scree communities in this site are very diverse. Of particular interest is the flora of high-altitude screes in the snowy corries, with parsley fern Cryptogramma crispa, alpine lady-fern Athyrium distentifolium and rare wavy meadow-grass Poa flexuosa (U18). The flora is rich in rare moss species, for example Dicranum glaciale, and rare liverworts, such as Tetralophozia setiformis and Marsupella adusta. These occur on rocks in and about the snow-beds. There are also several northern Atlantic bryophytes such as Scapania nimbosa, Scapania ornithopodioides and Anastrophyllum donnianum, which are restricted to areas of late snow-lie where they are protected from winter frosts.

  • The Cairngorms represent high-altitude Siliceous rocky slopes with chasmophytic vegetation in the eastern Scottish Highlands. Crevice communities occur widely on acidic granite rocks and support an abundance of characteristic species. Rare species include Highland cudweed Gnaphalium norvegicum, alpine speedwell Veronica alpina, spiked wood-rush Luzula spicata and hare’s-foot sedge Carex lachenalii.

  • 91C0 Caledonian forest  * Priority feature

    The Cairngorms complex, consisting of six individually large Caledonian forest areas, including Abernethy and North Rothiemurchus, represents the more ‘continental’ East Central biochemical region, typically with W18b Pinus sylvestrisHylocomium splendens woodland, Vaccinium spp. sub-community. This complex of woodlands is the most extensive area of native pinewood in the UK and comprises almost half the total area of ancient Caledonian forest in Scotland. In common with the rest of Scotland, the upper limits of the pine woodland are mostly artificially depressed by grazing, but a more natural tree-line occurs at 640 m on Creag Fhiachlach. This is the highest altitudinal limit of woodland in the UK, and consists of bushy stunted growth of Scots pine Pinus sylvestris admixed with juniper Juniperus communis of a similar stature. The pine woodland shows transitions to a wide range of other vegetation, including 91D0 Bog woodland on the forest mires. There are areas of unusual herb-rich pine woodland at Mar Lodge, similar to those described at Ballochbuie. This type of forest is of very restricted distribution in Scotland. The forest contains nationally important populations of capercaillie Tetrao urogallus, Scottish crossbill Loxia scotica and the osprey Pandion haliaetus.

  • 91D0 Bog woodland  * Priority feature

    This site contains one of the largest areas of native 91C0 Caledonian forest in the UK, lying on gently-undulating glacial deposits in the foothills of the Cairngorms. Scots pine Pinus sylvestris Bog woodland has developed within the forest because the irregular glacial topography has led to marked variations in geomorphology and drainage pattern. The drier slopes and knolls support mature pine woodland and in the hollows between, wet mires with abundant bog woodland have developed. These stands are composed of mire vegetation, either M18 Erica tetralixSphagnum papillosum mire or M19 Calluna vulgarisEriophorum vaginatum mire, with a scattering of stunted pine trees and saplings. A good intact example of this community occurs at Mineral Well within Rothiemurchus forest. Recent peat stratigraphy shows evidence of a history of wooded bog on this site. The bog woodland appears to be stable, and the trees, although stunted, continue to grow. Other areas, including Inshriach, have been influenced by past management for commercial forestry, and recent restoration work has created the conditions required for wet woodland restoration. In total the hollows form an extensive area representing the largest example of Bog woodland in Scotland.

Annex II species that are a primary reason for selection of this site

  • 1386 Green shield-moss Buxbaumia viridis

    Green shield-moss Buxbaumia viridisB. viridis at Rothiemurchus had sporophytes, four in total and much fewer than in 2002. However, three new stands, close together, were found at Abernethy with a total of eight sporophytes. Areas of woodland with apparently suitable habitat were found to be very patchy, but a number of areas with good potential habitat were identified. It is thought possible that further survey may result in more new records for the species. Although sporophyte production is small, it is broadly comparable with that at the site at Moniack Gorge, Highland, and greater than that at Kindrogan, Perthshire. Given the extant records and the potential for discovery of further stands, the Cairngorms area is probably the most important locus for the species in the UK.

Annex II species present as a qualifying feature, but not a primary reason for site selection

Many designated sites are on private land: the listing of a site in these pages does not imply any right of public access.