Saturday, 20 February 2016

Trees & Traps & Sunshine: A Stroll Up A Local Hill


The Hills of Cromdale

Local hills can easily be neglected and it was with surprise that I realised it was two years since I’d been up Tom Mor just across the glen from my house. So on a recent cold but sunny afternoon two of us set off to visit this little 484 metre summit, actually the terminus of a long finger of moorland jutting out from an undulating heathery plateau in the north-east corner of the Cairngorms National Park. Tom Mor is a heavily managed hill, the slopes are used for sheep grazing and grouse shooting, and are covered with the scars of heather burning, There’s a forestry plantation on one flank too and a communications mast near the summit. I don’t often see much wildlife on Tom Mor other than red grouse and the vegetation is rather minimal, mostly heather and more heather. The reason for climbing the hill is for the views, which are extensive in all directions.

At least this is how it was. Now the hill is changing. There was little sign of this as we began to walk up the rough vehicle track that curves round its flanks, almost reaching the summit. Indeed the only visible additions to the landscape were rather dispiriting. On each of the little burns that ran across the track there were logs with spring traps in cages on them, five in total. None of the traps were set and they all looked pretty rusty. The logs showed that they had been placed fairly recently. 

Higher up, as the first patches of snow that remained from the thaw of a few days previously appeared, the changes were much more uplifting. Little pines were poking up through the heather, lots of them, the beginnings of a new forest. There must be fewer sheep on the hill, far fewer. As we climbed so the trees increased in number. The broad summit was covered with them. If left alone this will be a wooded hill in a few decades.

Young trees on the summit

For now the only shelter on the summit is provided by two large well-built cairns and as a bitter wind was sweeping out of the north we took cover behind one of these while we donned extra clothing. Across Strathspey the Hills of Cromdale were still snow-spattered while to the south the bright line of the River Spey led the eye through forests and fields to where the hazy, cloud-capped Cairngorms hung white against the blue sky. A waxing moon stood high in the sky and the wispy streaks of cloud began to turn pink and orange as the sun sank into thicker clouds far to the west.

Strathspey

The colour began to fade from the sky as we left the summit for a direct descent down rough tussocky slopes to the dark shadows of the pine plantation. Like the slopes above this wood has been left alone and is now slowly reverting to a more natural state. Once inside the trees it didn’t feel like being in a plantation. Or on an even hillside. Whilst from outside the forest looks like it’s on a uniform slope it’s not and inside there are valleys and hills and twists and turns. The contrast is great, and the wood is far more interesting than it appears. 

Below the wood a double somewhat rotten fence required careful negotiation before boggy fields led to the road. I looked back at the silhouette of the hill. Tom Mor may only be an over-managed little hill but those young trees will draw me back soon. Higher

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