In 1992, Adam Powell joined one of the very first Trees for Life Conservation Weeks as a volunteer. A gardener by trade, Adam's apprenticeship with Blackpool Corporation Parks Department in the early 1960s had circuitously led him to the forefront of Scotland's early rewilding days - to Glen Affric.
Glen Affric was where, in the 1950s, an enlightened forester had the foresight to preserve an ancient fragment of pinewoods. It was where granny pines still stood in number - awe-inspiring relics from a different time. They stood as a testament to the recently formed Trees for Life team that the Scottish Highlands could be greener, ecologically diverse, and more alive. And, with increasing numbers of volunteers travelling to the glen to help with the tree planting work, our rewilding mission was off the ground.
'I was completely blown away by what I saw in Glen Affric,' Adam explains on a recent visit to the Trees for Life office. 'I had spent a lot of time in the 70s hillwalking, wild camping and rock climbing all across the Highlands. The penny had never quite dropped: this is not a natural landscape anymore. There should be a lot more trees. Going to Glen Affric and hearing what Alan Watson Featherson had to say about it was a real eye-opener.'
It was in West Affric where Adam really made his mark. In 1993, the National Trust for Scotland bought the 9,300-acre West Affric Estate. As The Herald reported at the time, the National Trust had been able to make the purchase thanks to the 'legacy of an anonymous Glasgow benefactor seeking to preserve the natural and unspoilt beauty of the area for the public.' A major condition on the donation was that National Trust for Scotland should promote 'nature conservation and sympathetic forestry regeneration.' Trees for Life was the organisation to help achieve this.
Adam and the team's proposal was not to try to plant the entire estate, but to establish islands of seed source in strategic locations - offering the landscape a chance for spontaneous regeneration. While the collaborative project was not without its challenges, thanks to funding from the Forestry Commission (now Forestry and Land Scotland), the strategic planting paid off. These new pockets of trees kickstarted the regeneration of entire ecosystems, spreading out through the glen. Woodland fungi, plants, insects and birds all returned to fragments of the landscape where they had not been seen for hundreds of years.
By showing that it was possible for trees not just to return to Glen Affric but successfully regenerate there, this early rewilding work has provided a touchstone for the past 30 years, inspiring us to set similar ambitions across the Highlands. Cultivating working relationships with Forestry and Land Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland has been equally instrumental to our work. The willingness of these two organisations to take a chance on a new, small charity was remarkable.
Over the years, as our work continued to grow with pace, Adam's time-shifted from being predominantly in the field to being in the office, continuing with strategic planning. Adam retired in 2013 when Mick Drury replaced him as Field Projects Manager. In the intervening years, Adam has enjoyed watching the direction we have taken: embracing rewilding and engaging more people and communities.
During his time in West Affric, Adam planted a birch tree near the Youth Hostel for his granddaughter Holly's first birthday. Last year, Holly turned 22. She created a tattoo design, which detailed the contour lines of the Allt Beithe area, and with a small cross marking the birch's location. Adam's response surprised both himself and his family - 'I said to Holly, well if you're going to do it, I will too.' His first tattoo; just another way West Affric has left its mark on Adam.