Rare plant thriving on Ochils crags

11 July 2024

Numbers of one of Scotland’s rarest plants have more than trebled on the craggy slopes of Dumyat in the Ochil Hills, a new survey has found.

Around 10,000 flowering stems of sticky catchfly were counted by volunteers during a three-day survey on crags south of the summit this summer. 

The numbers are up from around 3,000 flowering stems in 2013 and represent at least of fifth of the known British population. 

Sticky catchfly is a nationally rare species with fewer than 18 populations scattered across Britain. The plant has a long-recorded history in Scotland and is said to have been admired by James VI on the crags of Arthur’s Seat. 

It has sadly declined and disappeared from many of its former locations, with overgrazing and gorse encroachment pushing surviving colonies onto inaccessible cliff faces. 

The crags and screes of the Ochils remain the national stronghold for the plant, which can be identified by its showy pink flowers and sticky stem that prevents herbivorous insects such as aphids from climbing up. It is thought that these trapped insects act as fertiliser for the roots, falling to the ground when the flowers die back. 

The survey was led and coordinated by the Future Forest Company (FFC) on its land at Dumyat in collaboration with NatureScot, local naturalists, the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI), TCV Scotland, the National Trust for Scotland and the University of Edinburgh, which is also working to increase the local populations on its nearby land at Drumbrae. 

Since taking over management of the Dumyat site in 2021, FCC have embarked on a native woodland and nature restoration programme, removing sheep and reducing numbers of roe deer around the crags. The survey estimated that only 10% of the current plants showed signs of browsing.

NatureScot Operations Officer Stuart Bence, who surveyed the Dumyat plants in 2013, said: “These are absolutely amazing results. When we carried out the previous survey, we never thought we would see such high numbers and it is great news that the population seems to be spreading.

“To see the species going from being on a knife-edge to recovering so well is fantastic and just goes to show the benefits that the changes to land management in the area have brought about.

“The success of this joint project demonstrates what can be achieved when many partners and the community come together to enhance nature. Huge thanks to everyone involved.”

Lindsay Mackinlay, Head of Ecology at the Future Forest Company, said: “Many good people have worked over many years to try and conserve this gloriously beautiful plant at Dumyat. It truly is stunning to look at. We were blown away by the willingness of so many people and organisations to help us count the number of plants up in the crags. 

“We are even more delighted that the plant appears to be doing really well since we have reduced the grazing up there. It’s so nice to get a good news story and we promise to keep trying to look after it. It’s not every day you have one of the UK’s rarest plants thriving on your land.”

It is hoped that the species will continue to expand across the Ochils, with other land managers helping to join up existing populations of the plant. The Alva Glen Heritage Trust and TCV have already successfully re-established a viable population at Alva Glen. The Stirling and Clackmannanshire Scottish Wildlife Trust group and the Stirling University Wildlife Conservation Society have also been involved in monitoring and surveying the plant.

The conservation work has also benefited the rare northern brown argus butterfly, which was seen on Dumyat for the first time in 100 years in 2023. The habitat changes for sticky catchfly also support the common rockrose plant which the butterfly’s caterpillars feed on. Butterfly Conservation Scotland has joined forces with the project to help combine efforts to survey and conserve both species at once.

Many of the volunteer surveyors were enrolled on the Identiplant distance learning plant identification course in Scotland, currently run in partnership with the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) and TCV Scotland. 

Julia Hanmer, BSBI Chief Executive, said: “This is such a great example of partnership working. The survey involved students on the BSBI & Identiplant course, a remote learning programme designed for people who want to develop their botanical skills, working alongside botanists from the partnership, and shows how we can all help make a real difference for plant conservation and monitoring here in Scotland.”

Clare Johnstone, Senior Project Officer at TCV Scotland and Identiplant student, said: “This was a fantastic opportunity to get some hands-on experience of wildflower identification. The BSBI Identiplant course is really helping us novices to appreciate our wildflowers. 

“Sticky catchfly is really an amazing native wildflower with the added interest of a sticky stem that really does stop some types of insects accessing the flowers. It’s super to see it flourishing in the Ochil ravines despite it being a rare species elsewhere.”

Julie Wilson, Community Ranger for the University of Edinburgh, said: “It was great to see so many people come together for the plant survey. It has helped us identify where sticky catchfly currently are and where we can increase the local populations through additional planting at Drumbrae.”