The high land of the Cairngorms National Park, properly called the sub-arctic or montane zone, and starting around 600 m, constitutes the highest and most massive range of arctic mountain landscape in the British Isles. It bears a striking resemblance to the Arctic proper, found further north in Canada, Russia and Scandinavia. The montane zone in the Park is extensive, and represents a significant proportion (29%) of the UK total of an estimated 600 000 ha.

The conditions bring about harsh, but very special, habitats with a unique assemblage of plants and animals, caused by a combination of:
  • altitude;
  • exposure;
  • snow lie;
  • generally poor soils.
Many plants have a specialised growth form: flowers and leaves specially adapted to cold, wind and water loss, e.g. rosette or cushion forms. Larger animals are also well adapted, with some developing white plumage/coats in winter for camouflage, e.g. ptarmigan, mountain hare.

The montane plant communities are internationally important for long-term monitoring of global warming and pollution trends, owing to their particular sensitivity to environmental change.

This is the most fragile zone of the Park. Although probably the least modified by human activity, with large areas remaining unaltered, this zone now requires special and sensitive protection.