Seeds Of Hope In The Hills


Ecologist Gus Routledge says remnant pockets of trees high in the mountains are a cause for optimism – as is the potential of young people to shape a better future.

Ecologist, Gus Routledge examining moss sp. with magnifying glass, Glen Einich, Cairngorms National Park

To say that ecologist Gus Routledge is keen on plants doesn’t come close to conveying his passion and enthusiasm for the botanical world. This is a young person who has accumulated an astonishing amount of knowledge about everything from minuscule lichens to mighty oaks, with the extraordinary ability to remember all of their latin names.

Gus’s interest in the natural world started early in his life, when it was birds rather than plants that captured his imagination. But Gus is not one to follow the crowds.

“Everyone seemed to be interested in birds, so I decided to find out about things that few others were paying much attention to,” he explains. This natural curiosity means that he spends a lot of his spare time stomping around the Scottish Highlands in search of plant life, much of it rare and difficult to find. His uncanny knack of finding unusual species recently led him to rediscover the rare coralroot orchid in Wester Ross, 250 years after it was last recorded there. 

His work as a freelance ecologist often takes him to remote parts of Scotland where he casts a critical eye over the ecological state of the landscape, and he has strong feelings about the montane environment.

“I don’t see how we can ignore the fact that we’ve completely lost woodland habitat from our hills, and I think we have a moral duty to help it return, for the sake of nature and our connection to it,” he says. “In the next 10 years I’d like to see a real uptick in places actively managed for montane woodland because the longer we linger, the later it’ll be before we can reap the benefits of restored ecosystems.”

Despite his concerns about the paucity of tree cover on Scotland’s uplands, Gus remains hopeful for the future, and his own discoveries of species existing as relics give him hope that it’s not too late. He says: “Despite everything we’ve thrown at our ecosystems, they’ve managed to cling on to many of their component parts. Amazingly, we’re still finding high altitude groves of trees that had never really been noticed before, offering us an opportunity to restore our lost montane woodlands.”

Mountain birch, Betula sp. growing at high altitude in Glen Einich, Cairngorms National Park

“I don't see how we can ignore the fact that we've completely lost woodland habitat from our hills.”

His records of high altitude trees, along with those of other enthusiasts, are being logged as part of the Mountain Birch Project, an initiative overseen by the charity Reforesting Scotland, of which Gus is a Director. One of the aims of the project is to collect seed from mountain birches and other high altitude trees, and propagate these so that new generation saplings can be planted at suitable upland sites.

As an original member of the NextGen young rewilders team and as SCOTLAND: The Big Picture’s youngest trustee, Gus recognises the value of engaging with a younger audience. “I’d love it if I was inspiring other young people to get involved in rewilding. I hope other young folk see that it’s an area that they can get involved in because their voices are incredibly important in helping shape a better future for people and for nature.”

Ecologist, Gus Routledge looking at feather-like structure of moss sp. Glen Einich, Cairngorms National Park