During the past couple of years I’ve forgone the annual trips I was previously making to the tropics, to visit and photograph the forests there, and have taken more time to explore the woodlands of Scotland instead. I’ve been spending days in small areas of old forest remnants that I’d either never visited previously, or hadn’t been to for many years, getting to know them, and many of the species that live in them, intimately. This is reflected in the changed focus of this diary – instead of the selection of photographs from forests around the world that have featured in previous editions, the 2013 diary concentrates exclusively on the forests of Scotland, and mainly those remnants of the Caledonian Forest where Trees for Life works.
It’s also a reflection of the large change that is taking place throughout Scotland though, as restoration efforts bring new, or renewed life, to many of our ancient woodlands. From Rassal Ashwood in Wester Ross to the Carrifran Wildwood in Dumfries and Galloway, and from the Loch Sunart Oakwoods in Lochaber to Abernethy and Glenfeshie in the Cairngorms National Park, many of our native woodlands throughout the length and breadth of the country are undergoing a renaissance. Natural regeneration and planting are enabling new trees and young forests to get established, for the first time in centuries in many locations.
It’s an exciting and inspiring development, but we have yet to see the results of the numerous schemes that have gone ahead in the past twenty years or so. Because trees grow slowly in much of Scotland, the new forests are currently relatively inconspicuous in the landscape, and the bare, heather-clad and sheep-shaved hills (or the monoculture, linear ranks of non-native plantations) still predominate in most of the country. However, young birches, pines, oaks and other native trees are rooting in the glens, and beginning the process of returning the land to health, diversity and heterogeneity again. They are already providing an expanded habitat for the forest-dependent plants, fungi and invertebrates that will in turn attract birds and mammals, as the web of life that is the forest ecosystem begins to re-weave itself, catalysed by the return of the trees.
Forest restoration is a labour of love, and an act of helping Nature to heal, that has seldom if ever been attempted anywhere in the world prior to the last few decades. In the past, whenever nations or cultures have cut down their forests, they’ve either declined and faded (as happened, for example, with many of the old cultures in the Mediterranean and the Middle East), or they have gone on to exploit forests elsewhere, as is the case with Britain, where we built an empire and proceeded to exploit forests all over the world after our own were depleted.
Now, with the last remaining primary forests under siege from chainsaw, axe and fire all over the planet, in New Guinea, Siberia, the Congo and the Amazon, we are in the end game of industrial exploitation of Nature’s sylvan abundance. Even forests in national parks, which are ‘officially’ protected, are, in many countries, undergoing a slow but steady and relentless impoverishment, through the illegal felling of economically valuable trees, poaching of key wildlife species, isolation from other natural habitats and the impact of human-induced pollution, global warming and invasive non-native species.
From here on, the future of forests, and all the biological diversity they support, will increasingly depend on our ability to restore natural forests, both in terms of adequate size to be functionally viable and their ecological integrity, with their full complement of species and all their processes of succession, disturbance, interactions between predators and prey etc. It is not by chance that forest restoration projects have sprung up spontaneously all over the world in the last quarter century or so. From the dry forests of Costa Rica to the kauri forests of New Zealand, and from the mangroves of Vietnam to the dry evergreen tropical forests of southeast India, inspired, visionary individuals and groups have realised that the wellbeing of their local bioregion, and all the people it supports, depends on the presence of healthy forests and all the ecosystem services that they provide. These are pioneering, experimental projects, trialling new methods and techniques, usually carried out with much manual labour, and with a mixed rate of success. Out of their efforts, and the increasing exchange of knowledge and experiences between them, some common principles and examples of best practice are emerging, which will enable newer projects to get a head start in their work.
It is in this context therefore that I view the movement for forest restoration in Scotland. It is an informal, diverse and experimental movement, much of which has arisen from the grass-roots, and which involves conservation organisations, private landowners, government agencies and community groups. A range of strategies and techniques are being tested, from heavy deer culling and no fencing to achieve natural regeneration (for example at Creag Meagaidh) through various different combinations of regeneration and planting (which is where most of Trees for Life’s work sits) to very site-specific, ecologically-detailed planting of an entire forest (as at Carrifran).
The conclusion that I increasingly draw from this diverse range of approaches is that there is no single right way to restore a forest. Each site, and the ecological conditions and limiting factors there (such as the management practices on neighbouring lands), will shape and determine what techniques will give the best prospect of successful forest re-establishment. For me, it’s also important to remember that ecological restoration and forest recovery are natural processes, which would occur spontaneously (as they did at the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago) if human activities weren’t preventing them.
With this perspective, I’ve always seen our work at Trees for Life as helping to catalyse or kick-start forest restoration, and that the bulk of the work will be done subsequently by Nature herself, as natural processes such as the spread of pioneer trees become functional again. Once we’re able to get enough young trees established and providing an increased volume of seeds every year, so that some seedlings are able to withstand the reduced grazing pressure from substantially lower numbers of large herbivores (both deer and sheep) than we have today, then natural regeneration will become spontaneously successful again, without the need for further fences. Reinstating all our native large mammal species, especially the top predators, and allowing natural processes, such as occasional large-scale disturbances like wildfires, to run their course, will also be essential to this.
Organisations such as Trees for Life are sometimes accused, wrongly, of wanting to ‘turn the clock back’ to some idealised era of undisturbed Nature, prior to significant human exploitation. Instead, what’s really required is to re-start the clock – the dynamic, interactive process of evolution, or rather of co-evolution, amongst all the species that comprise the Caledonian Forest ecosystem. That clock ceased to function several centuries ago at least, and some of the key parts were thrown away with the extirpation of most of our large mammal species. Evolution within forest ecosystems in Scotland came to a grinding halt with the loss of most of the trees and their dependent species, and has been stalled ever since.
As in other parts of the world, predators and their prey co-evolve, with each honing the physical abilities of the other in the ongoing dance of life that is formed by their interactions. Similarly, the unique adaptations of the Scots pine to the climatic conditions and soil types of Scotland, that has resulted in the geochemical variations between the pine populations in different parts of the Highlands, is the result of the thousands of years of evolution that followed the most recent Ice Age. That too has been interrupted, and almost terminated, by the reduction of the Caledonian Forest to the few scattered remnants that survived at the end of the twentieth century.
The current widespread movement for restoration of native forests in Scotland therefore represents a new beginning, not just for woodlands as we know them, but also for the processes of evolution, or co-evolution, that will allow new interactions between species to develop, and even, given enough time, for new species to emerge as well. As such, it is the counterpoint to one of the greatest concerns about the current impact of human activities on the rest of Nature – that we are causing the ‘end of birth’ in ecological terms. Through our global depletion of ecosystems and decimation of the numbers of many species, we are not just impoverishing the natural world today, but are also (and more alarmingly) reducing the capacity and options for the evolution of new species in future, through our destruction of natural habitats and the fragmentation and isolation of the populations of species to levels that are not reproductively viable.
With the majority of Scotland’s forests having been lost centuries ago, or even two or three millennia in the past, we have the unfortunate distinction of having been in the forefront of forest destruction. It is only fitting therefore that we should now have the opportunity to be in vanguard of forest restoration, and that has always formed the larger context for the work I’ve sought to accomplish with Trees for Life. We’ve sought to embody the principle of acting locally to address the global issue of deforestation, and to demonstrate techniques and practices can be utilised elsewhere as well.
With 2013 having been declared the Year of Natural Scotland, and in the context of increasing concerns about climate change and biodiversity loss around the world, there’s now an opportunity to significantly develop and expand the work of forest restoration in Scotland. What better way to celebrate the beauty and diversity of Nature in Scotland than by increasing our work to assist its recovery and return to ecological health? It would seem to be straightforward and simple, but unfortunately there’s another very different agenda at work as well, which threatens to undermine or even nullify the forward movement of the past two decades.
The Scottish government has made an ambitious and laudable commitment to substantially increasing the utilisation of renewable energy resources, in large part to address the issue of climate change caused by burning fossil fuels. However, this is being implemented according to the same economically-driven priorities that have contributed significantly to the current problems, and is resulting in what can only be termed a new industrialisation of the Highlands. Large scale wind farms are proliferating all over the country, causing massive visual intrusions in relatively natural landscapes that have previously been free of human infrastructure, and virtually every river and burn in the Highlands is being targeted for possible small-scale hydro-electric installations. This is particularly relevant in Glen Affric, where four burns are being considered for hydro schemes, and at Dundreggan, where a number of schemes are proposed on the surrounding lands, although many other parts of the Highlands are affected as well.
It all serves to provide a stark contrast for two different scenarios for the future – one in which natural forests, complete with their full complement of species, flourish again in many parts of the Highlands, and the other where human industrial exploitation of the land continues unabated, and the opportunity to experience wild Nature dwindles still further. That choice of futures is being made now, and I know which one I’m working for, although there is an element of inevitability about some of the renewable energy developments. To achieve the ambitious goals we have for forest and wild land restoration, we need more people to engage and make a difference now – the future of Scotland’s forests is literally in our hands.
Alan Watson Featherstone
(This article featured as the introductory essay in the 2013 edition of the Trees for Life Engagement Diary)