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Up on the tops - The Uplands
Heather moorland and Cairnsmore of Fleet, Cairnsmore of Fleet NNR, Galloway
Heather moorland and
Cairnsmore of Fleet,
Cairnsmore of Fleet NNR,

The Southern Uplands landscape of high domed hills and plateau is recognised as a European mountain massif, just like the Scottish Highlands, the Pyrenees and the Alps.

Rhinns of Galloway at dawn
Rhinns of Galloway at dawn

Up on the tops, the windswept moorlands that blanket the plateau are riddled with streams and sprinkled with lochs. As snow lies later here than anywhere else south of the Highlands, the mountain heaths are refuges for Arctic and alpine species at the southern limit of their range, like the woolly hair moss that grows amongst lichen-rich blaeberry heaths.

Dark, peaty pools are scattered amongst blanket bogs' drier hummocks of springy heather that sprout tufts of cotton grass. The drops fringing sundew plants glitter in sunshine and azure hawker dragonflies provide iridescent flashes. Wider expanses of heather and bog moss cover deep peat.

Coming down from the tops, the hill slopes and undulating foothills are cloaked with green pastures dotted with sheep, swathed in dark green coniferous plantations or patterned with the distinctive stripes and patches of managed heather moorland.

Muir burning to maintain the habitat for red grouse
Muir burning to maintain
the habitat for red grouse

Cattle and sheep have grazed these hills for over 5,000 years. Iron Age hillfort communities enclosed their cattle herds in sturdy corrals that provided some protection from rival tribe's raids. In recent decades, upland farming has shifted from small cattle farms to larger sheep farms.


Some heather moorland is still 'muir' burned to maintain the habitat for red grouse. The evocative calls of curlew pierce the air and other waders, like golden plover, dunlin and redshank, breed amongst the heather. Rare golden eagles, as well as peregrines, hen harriers, buzzards and merlins soar through the open skies. Centuries of sheep grazing has reduced heather cover, allowing bracken and moorgrass to take over but changes in grazing, particularly the reintroduction of cattle, would allow diverse plant communities to regenerate.

"For I'll hasten to the vision,
of a valley fair, Elysian,
And gaze at Scotland's Eden
From the spur of Gala Hill"

Roger Quin, 'The Borderland'

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