Where are all the trees?

I’ve been on two hikes since arriving in Scotland. I should have done more but being car-less and for the fact that most of the hill walks are off bus routes, I haven’t been on as many as I’ve liked.

The two that I have been on were great fun.

When you arrive in a new country one of the things you often find is that the scenery, the flora and fauna, even the colour of the sky can be wildly different from where you’ve come from. This is certainly the case here in bonnie Scotland.

From memory Scotland is further north of the equator, than NZ is south of it. So it’s probably obvious that there’s going to be some differences.

So, I’ve just looked it up…

NZ is 42 degrees South (others similar incl Boston, Detroit and New York). From Google: “At this latitude the sun is visible for 15 hours, 15 minutes during the December solstice and 9 hours, 7 minutes during the June solstice”

Glasgow is 55 degrees North (others similar incl Copenhagen and Moscow). From Google: “At this latitude the sun is visible for 17 hours, 22 minutes during the summer solstice and 7 hours, 10 minutes during the winter solstice”

So mid-summer Glasgow will get over 2 hours more sunlight than NZ gets at it’s equivalent mid-summer event. This explains why it’s so light here in the evenings. The light will linger on even longer for the next month, until mid-summer.

Scotland terrain
Scotland terrain

While hiking I’ve been aware of the other differences from New Zealand. The topography north of Glasgow is mostly rolling hills. These hills get higher once you get further out, but their appearance doesn’t seem to change from the gentle contour and rounded tops that become familiar. Looking up various online references, I’m reminded that the highest point in the UK, Ben Nevis, is just 1,344 metres. This is well below most mountains in NZ. Mt Cook itself is 3,724 metres.

And yet snow remains on many of these Scottish hills and peaks that I can see. The difference in 42 degrees south and 55 degrees north must be having some say here. A peak of 1,300 metres in New Zealand, a month or so out from mid-summer, is very unlikely to have snow on it unless a southerly storm has just passed through.

I wonders what should I wear on hill hikes here? How well should I be prepared?  My NZ brain tells me that if I stay well below the hilltops, it can’t be that cold as I’m not up high enough.

Wrong! Luckily I ignored my kiwi cockiness on my first hike. I took more layers than I thought I would use. I ended up wearing all of them!  The walk was a gentle stroll of about 10 miles, up one side of a glen and back down the other side of the same glen. The elevation gain was probably only 200 metres in total. During this walk I experienced sunshine, intermittent rain, short burst of hail, and bitterly cold wind. It was easily 4 seasons within a few hours.  I was glad to have every layer I brought, but especially full waterproofs and woolen gloves.

glen and 'mountains'
glen and ‘mountains’

So I learnt quickly that the Scotland climate is very different from New Zealand and it’s essential to have enough layers here, even on easy lowland walks, to survive temperatures that can, with wind chill, easily drop from warm and sunny to freezing, within the space of just 10 minutes.

I haven’t talked about trees yet. I’ll finish up with that observation. In New Zealand the mountains are normally cloaked in native trees and bush, up to about 900 metres of elevation when alpine conditions kick in. Here it is totally different. There are plantations but most hills seem barren of trees and vegetation. Perhaps it’s something to do with the soil. Perhaps it’s related to the climate.

A benefit is that without trees to obscure the outlook ahead you get huge vistas into the distance. The mountains (I’ll call them that but they still seem like big hills) tower up from the floor of the glens. The lack of trees make them appear much taller than they actually are. This provides some excellent photo opportunities. Once you are in this type of landscape there are photo opportunities whichever way you turn.

my Baden Powell days taught me well
my Baden Powell days taught me well

I’m keen to find out more about the flora and fauna that exists in the Highlands. What stops the trees from growing on the mountains? Why is the ground so boggy in the low-lying glens? Why does the weather change so rapidly here, even in the warmer months? Is it all part of the latitude equation?


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