Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve in the Monadhliath Mountains is a rocky landscape of ice gorged summits, plateaus and ridges that extends from north-east Lochaber into the Cairngorms. The reserve extends from the shoreline of Loch Laggan to the high summits of the hills that form the whaleback ridge surrounding the ‘great bowl’ of Coire Ardair. The summit of Creag Meagaidh is the highest at 1130m surrounded by 12 peaks of over 900 metres. The Reserve supports a transition of habitats, ranging from ancient alder and birch woodland on lower ground to montane willow scrub, Calluna/Vaccinium-Arctostaphylos heath, ‘siliceous alpine and boreal grassland’ and arctic moss heath on higher ground. The Creag Meagaidh Reserve supports one of the largest areas of woolly fringe moss heath in the Highlands.
The upland area was designated as an SSSI in 1964 and extended in 1983 to cover just under 4000 hectares. Creag Meagaidh has also been designated as a Special Protection Area of Conservation and a Special Protection Area. The reserve is also included in European Natura 2000 network in recognition of eleven different, mostly upland habitats of European importance. The National Nature Reserve is currently being actively managed to restore the native woodlands by actively reducing red deer numbers.
The bedrock belongs to the Dalradian Supergroup, laid down as sedimentary rocks between 800 to 500 million years ago, and later metamorphosed around 450 million years ago during a mountain building episode. Glaciation events have carved the summits, ridges, cliffs and valleys of this dramatic landscape, as well as leaving an array of glacial deposits that give a hummocky topography to the mid slopes.
Arctic plants include alpine speedwell (Veronica alpine), Highland cudweed (Gnaphalium norvegicum), tufted saxifrage (Saxifraga caespitose) and alpine woodsia (Woodsia alpine).
The area is not only renowned for its montane willow scrub communities, but also its ancient birch and alder woodland. The latter support several species of lichen associated with ancient woodland. Over 100 species of lichen have been recorded on the Reserve.
The reserve supports a range of birds from those of deciduous and coniferous woodland to those associated with the high mountain peaks. Look out for snow bunting, ptarmigan, golden plover, eagle, black grouse, brambling, twite, ring ouzel, willow warblers, meadow pipits, tree pipits, siskins, tits, according to habitat, season and altitude. The nature reserve is also an important site for its breeding population of dotterel. Look out for the tracks, signs and sightings of mountain hare, red deer, pine marten, wild cat, badger, red squirrel, water vole and otter.
The reserve also supports a diversity of butterflies representing the browns, blues and coppers, whites and yellows, skippers, vanessids and fritillaries. Notable species include chequered skipper, dark green fritillary, pearl bordered fritillary, small pearl bordered fritillary, large heath, mountain ringlet and clouded yellow.
The entrance to the reserve is by the north shore of Loch Laggan between Fort William and Newtonmore on the A86.
There are three lovely short trails in the Reserve extending into Aberarder forest - Alderwood Trail (1.1km) An Sidhean Trail (1km) and Allt Dubh Trail (1.8km). These trails give a glimpse of meadow, alder woodland and upland habitats.
There is also a longer trail (Coire Ardair) that affords the opportunity to embrace the wild uplands of the Reserve and affords some spectacular views of the whale-bone ridge on route to a small hill lochan.
There are several information boards and picnic benches on the site, a sightings board, leaflets and a toilet. The information boards include a map of the site, a description of the habitat types (birch woodland, ancient woodland, heath, bog, uplands, cliff and freshwater).
A visit to the reserve is highly recommended to explore the stunning scenery and biodiversity of this lovely reserve in Lochaber and the Cairngorms.