I set out alone on the second day of my Treelay leg from our overnight campsite, near the Mullardoch dam in Glen Cannich, after my son Kevin had gone home. It was a much longer route than the first day, heading east initially in Glen Cannich, and then going over the hills to the north to Glen Strathfarrar. There, I’d have an extended walk to reach the rendezvous point at the end of my leg, at the entrance to the glen near Struy.
Walking along the road in Glen Cannich, looking at the hills on the north side of the glen, I was struck by the huge potential for forest restoration there. Scattered trees cling to the most inaccessible parts of the slopes – in the gullies of small burns, and on steep rocky ledges. These are the only places where they can grow without being eaten by the large numbers of deer that the owner maintains on the land there.
The slopes are mostly covered in heather, indicating that they are well-drained and therefore ideal for trees; they would have been covered in forest in the past, and trees would regenerate there naturally now, if it weren’t for the large numbers of herbivores that prevent them from doing so. The scattered trees would provide an effective seed source for natural regeneration, if fenced exclosures could be erected there.
Reaching the Liatrie Burn, I headed up its east side towards an area that has been fenced for natural regeneration. This was one of the first sites that Trees for Life was involved with, after I began visiting the area in 1987. With the landowner’s agreement we protected Scots pine seedlings there with tubes in 1989, in one of the first practical acts of the project. In proposing a fenced exclosure there I sought the advice of the then Nature Conservancy Council (now Scottish Natural Heritage) the same year.
Impressed by the native pinewood there, they designated it a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and took over the project, putting up a fence for natural regeneration in 1990. We subsequently removed all the tubes, after the fence was up, but I hadn’t returned to the area for many years, so it was very inspiring to see so many young trees growing inside the fence now. This is particularly significant because of the large number of dead and dying pines in this old Caledonian Forest remnant.
As I walked up the gully of the burn, the fragility of this pinewood was brought home vividly by the sight of a large old Scots pine outside the fence that had been snapped off near its base by a recent storm. Its fate symbolised that of all the unprotected remnants of the old Caledonian Forest – as the ancient trees die, the forest dwindles year by year, as there are no new trees growing to replace them. This provided a dramatic contrast to the successful growth of young trees inside the fenced area nearby.
The main part of the Liatrie pinewood is not fenced at all, and although it is a beautiful area, its days are clearly numbered because there’s a large number of dead trees in the woodland, and no new ones at all to take over and provide continuity in the forest. The tragedy is that this result is detrimental to the deer as well, as they won’t have any shelter when the forest is gone.
At the top edge of the pinewood, the trees become very thinly scattered and the proportion of dead ones increases, with several lone skeleton pines providing a stark testament to the fate that most of the woodland there is still heading towards. It constantly astounds me that successive generations of people have watched this slow death of the forest, without taking the simple actions that would enable a new generation of trees to grow, to replace the old ones …
The top edge of the Liatrie pinewood reaches an altitude of 430 metres, and from there it’s less than a kilometre to the watershed divide between Glens Cannich and Strathfarrar, which is at the relatively low elevation of 510 metres. This is well below the treeline of 600 metres, so it’s possible a woodland link could be restored between the two glens there. However, today the only evidence of trees at the watershed divide is the presence of some Scots pine roots, visible in a peat hag – an area where erosion has exposed the underlying peat.
Heading down into Strathfarrar, I followed the long valley of the Allt Innis na Larach Burn, having to detour around a number of peat hags along the way. Peat hags are another indication of the results of overgrazing, as they are open wounds on the land, which are unable to heal because the large numbers of deer prevent the growth of any vegetation in them. Lower down the burn, I came across another consequence of deforestation – a series of large landslips in a steep part of the watershed.
In my view, there’s a strong case to be made for planting trees in this steep area, as further landslips will undoubtedly occur with nothing to hold the topsoil in place. The mineral soil exposed by the landslips is a gift of the glaciers from the last Ice Age and indicates that trees would do very well there.
Reaching the valley bottom, I crossed the Farrar River on a small footbridge and headed east along the glen on the road there. At the entrance to Strathfarrar, the landowners have a gate across the road and only 25 cars are allowed into the glen at a time. However, this was a Tuesday, which is a car-free day in the glen, so I was able to walk freely along the road without any vehicular traffic at all.
However, I did encounter some other unlikely road users along the way – a pair of feral goats! I think they were as surprised to see me as I was to see them, and although they quickly moved up off the road, they stayed amongst the trees nearby, watching me for about 10 minutes, so I was able to get a series of photographs of them. My only previous encounter with feral goats in our Project Area was about 10 years ago, on north side of Loch Mullardoch in Glen Cannich, when I saw a group of them from a small boat I was in at the time.
I had to walk fairly quickly now, as I still had about 17 kilometres to go along the road, to reach the rendezvous point at the end of my leg of the Treelay, at the entrance gate to the glen. About 3 kilometres further east there’s a very nice area of birchwood on the south side of Loch Beannacharan, and the new leaves of the birches there were bright green, catching the sun, which had just come out by that time. The landowner there has put up a number of fenced exclosures for natural regeneration, so it was good to see some young trees growing amongst the older ones.
A little further east still and a large area of native pinewood covers the north-facing slopes, on the south side of the glen. This is the Coille an Ath forest, and it comes down the steep slope to the side of the loch, which has been created by a small hydro dam. I had hoped to walk through that woodland, but my limited time and the steep and difficult terrain meant it wasn’t possible this day. However, it looks like a beautiful area, and having not visited it before, it’s one I will explore in future.
Further east again I came to the Culligran Estate, where we have agreement from the landowner to fence an area of native pinewood for natural regeneration – that project will go ahead this year. In 1987, when I first visited the glen, I was inspired by the sight of a fence that had been put by the Nature Conservancy Council, for regeneration of a different pinewood area there seven years previously, in 1980. The young trees that were visible in 1987 inspired me to seek agreements for fencing projects elsewhere, and that included the projects I had passed during the two days of my Treelay leg, at Coille Ruigh in Glen Affric, and at the different sites in Glen Cannich.
Looking at this same area in Strathfarrar again now in 2012, 25 years after my earlier photograph was taken there, showed dramatically how simple it is to help the forest regenerate. All we need is to get further agreements with landowners to carry out more projects like this …
I reached the entrance gate to Strathfarrar at 8 pm, tired and foot weary from having walked 26 kilometres on the day. However, I was also very inspired, both from having seen all the sites of the first projects that Trees for Life carried out, in 1989 and 1990, and from getting further ideas for more work in these areas. Thus, my participation in the Treelay formed a very interesting complement to the Lecture Tour I did in April. In the Tour I met up with quite a number of people who had been involved in our work in those early days, and now on the Treelay I revisited those early sites. This is all excellent preparation for the planting of our Millionth Tree on 20th May, and the celebration that will include, of all the work we’ve accomplished. It will also provide a great launching pad for the next phase of our project – the next million trees.
The Treelay itself is continuing until 19th May, and although my part in it is complete, you can still sponsor me if you’re inspired to do so, by going to my sponsorship page here. Thanks for any support you can provide!