Mountain heights, hidden depths: unearthing alpine soil biodiversity

Adopted: 270

Not Sampled: 100

Sampled: 170

Thank you for your interest in our alpine soil biodiversity project.

We have had tremendous interest from the hillwalking community, so much so that all the available Munros have now been adopted. We have now closed the registration process, to avoid disappointment. Those who have registered, but have not yet adopted a Munro, will be notified if any adopted Munros become available. Thank you again for your interest, we look forward to sharing our results with you.

The alpine zone on Scottish mountain summits includes some of our most important natural and undisturbed habitats, but these are being impacted by climate change and other factors such as air pollution. The myriad of organisms, both large and small, which live in soil are crucial for the functioning of habitats and influence important processes such as carbon storage and provision of clean water. In the alpine zone soil biodiversity has hardly been explored, we know very little about the species living in these soils and potentially we could lose them before we even know that they are there.

This project aims to radically change this by using DNA sequencing to detect and identify organisms in soil samples collected from the summits of the 282 Munros (3,000 ft summits) across Scotland. This will enable us to develop a picture of how soil biodiversity varies across Scotland’s alpine zone, to identify areas of high soil biodiversity, and to create a baseline against which to measure future change. To meet this mountainous challenge, we are reaching out to the hill-going community, asking hillwalkers to become expedition scientists for the day and to gather small soil samples while out walking. DNA will then be extracted from the samples and sequenced to enable us to build a first ever 'map' of soil biodiversity across Scotland's alpine zone.

The project builds on a pilot study in 2021 where volunteers collected samples from 55 Munros in the Cairngorm National Park to look for alpine fungi. We discovered 2,748 species of soil fungi including new and undescribed species.

We are looking for hillwalkers and mountaineers to volunteer as citizen scientists and to collect three small soil samples from a Munro of their choice. Sample collection is taking place from June to September in 2023 and 2024. Updates on our progress will be provided on this website and, at the end of the project, all volunteers will be invited to an online seminar where we will share our findings - there are sure to be many exciting new discoveries!

How to get involved

Each Munro is available on this website to be adopted by a volunteer, who will then be sent a Munro-specific sampling kit that contains instructions and guidance on where and how to collect the soil samples and a reply-paid envelope to return the samples for sequencing.

In order to adopt a Munro, you first need to register as a volunteer on the project using the "Volunteer Here" link below. During registration we ask you to carefully read and acknowledge the participant information sheet, particularly the sections about health and safety and our use of your personal data, and agree to the terms of participation.

You will receive an automated acknowledgement email when you register on the website (if it doesn't arrive please check your spam folder). We will then activate your account to enable you to login to the website. You will not be able to adopt any of the Munros until your account has been activated. Activation may take a couple of days, particularly over the weekend (but check your spam folder if you don't receive an email from us). We will send you an email with a one-time link to login to the website and set your password.  Once you have your account set up you will be able to login at the link below and select a Munro to sample using the "Adopt a Munro" tab at the top of this page.

How to collect a sample

Watch our video below to see how to collect a soil sample and how to identify the correct soil layer to sample from. Don't forget that alpine habitats are sensitive to disturbance and can be vulnerable to erosion. When you collect your samples, make sure you minimise disturbance to the plants and aim to leave no areas of bare soil after sampling. When sampling soil under moss mats, push any mosses or plants you have moved back down firmly when you are finished so that they can carry on growing. This is especially important during the current dry weather conditions we have been having in the hills.

To register as a volunteer



For volunteers already registered



Frequently Asked Questions

What skills do I need to take part in the project?

To enjoy taking part in this project you should be a competent hill walker and be comfortable with safely travelling and navigating in mountain environments. You will also need to be able to use a GPS to locate and record 12 figure grid references for your sampling points. The Munros include a wide range of summits with varying levels of difficulty, so when choosing one to adopt you should pick one that is appropriate to your personal level of hill skills and fitness.

Can I adopt more than one Munro?

Yes, you can volunteer to sample more than one Munro, but please bear in mind that collecting the samples from one Munro will add 1-1.5 hours on to your day. We don't recommend that you try to sample more than two Munros during a typical day out. When adopting Munros, please limit yourself to five summits at a time - you can always adopt more at a later date once you have sampled them.

How big is the sampling pack and how much does it weigh?

The sample pack is designed to fit easily into a rucksack pocket. The kit for one Munro consists of three 50ml sample tubes in a ziplock bag, three sterilising wipes, a recording form on waterproof paper and a pencil. The complete kit weighs around 100 g. You will also need to carry a knife or spoon to scoop up your soil sample and a camera or phone to photograph the vegetation at your sample plot.

Can I still collect a sample after the end of September?

The community of organisms which lives in the soil can change with the seasons, particularly between summer and winter. To make sure that the samples collected from different Munros are comparable, we aim to collect all our samples during the vegetation growing season (summer and early autumn). If you are not able to sample your Munro before the end of September 2023, hang on to your pack and you will have another opportunity to collect a sample during June-September 2024.

I adopted a Munro but I'm no longer able to do the sampling, what should I do?

Plans change and sometimes the Scottish weather doesn't cooperate! If you are no longer able to sample the Munro that you adopted please contact us telling us your name and the name of the Munro, so that we can release your Munro for adoption again.

When will I hear about the project results?

We will add periodic updates to this website to let everyone know how we are progressing with Munro adoption and sampling. Sampling is being conducted during summer of both 2023 and 2024, with DNA analysis during the winter periods. Once all the results are in (early 2025) we will hold an online seminar so that all our volunteers can hear about the project's findings.

Why are some Munros missing off the adoption map?

While the majority of Scotland's Munros support areas of alpine vegetation and soils, some are dominated by rock and scree with limited access to areas suitable for soil sampling. For this reason we have excluded a small number of Munros from the study, mainly in the Skye Cuillin. In total, the study aims to collect samples from 270 Munros, 55 of these within the Cairngorms National Park have already been sampled, leaving 215 available for adoption this time round.


Having problems?

If you have any problems with using the site, or have questions about the sampling, please contact us.

Who is funding the project?

The project is funded by the Scottish Government Rural and Environmental Science and Analytical Services (RESAS) as part of the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Strategic Research Programme, project JHI-D4-3 Scotland’s biodiversity: People, Data and Monitoring.

Who is involved?

The project is led by Dr Andrea Britton and Dr Andy Taylor.