In the far northwest of Scotland, near the village of Kinlochewe, grows a special woodland. The Scots pines found here are so distinct in genetic composition from pines in other parts of Scotland because they colonised the area via a different route after the last ice age. The area has been recognised as the first genetic conservation unit in the UK. Here, the pine trees have adapted to survive mild winters, high rainfall, and a long growing season.
The pines of Beinn Eighe are unusual because they grow in a zone where the boreal forest meets the temperate rainforest. The pines here, and at neighbouring Ben Shieldaig in Torridon, are not only part of the Caledonian pine forest that once covered swathes of Scotland, they are trees of the temperate rainforest, making them a rare breed in what is an increasingly rare habitat.
What is Scotland's rainforest?
Temperate rainforest needs three things to thrive: year-round mild temperatures, clean air and a lot of rain. In Scotland, the area this climate covers is a broad strip that stretches along the west coast from Cape Wrath to the Mull of Kintyre. But the amount of native, 'core' rainforest remaining within this strip is tiny, only around 30,000 hectares. It's made up of fragmented, mostly broad-leaved woodlands, particularly oak, but also hazel, ash and birch, and just a little bit of pine. Only around 3% of Scotland's rainforest is thought to consist of native pine trees.
While Scotland's Caledonian pinewoods are world-famous, Scotland's rainforest, once known as Atlantic woodland, has little recognition. But the Alliance for Scotland's Rainforest (ASR) is seeking to change that. It's a voluntary partnership of 24 organisations, including Trees for Life, committed to collaborative action to benefit this amazing habitat.
Why is Scotland's rainforest special?
Scotland's rainforest is the best example of this habitat in Europe, and it's internationally important for its abundance and diversity of mosses, liverworts and lichens. Just one hectare of rainforest can contain more than 200 species of lichens, species like the white script lichen, which is found nowhere else in the world. When in good condition, the same area can also hold 200 species of bryophytes, such as rusty bow-moss and pale scalewort, neither of which grows anywhere else in Europe.
Rare butterflies like the chequered skipper and pearl-bordered fritillary make their homes in these forests, and in the spring, the hillsides ring to the song of migrant birds. Wood warblers, pied flycatchers and redstarts create a very different soundtrack to the crossbills and crested tits of the Caledonian pinewood.
Forests under threat
Scotland's rainforest today is likely to be a fraction of its former size, and is under constant threat from invasive species, overgrazing, and climate change.
To protect it, ASR aims to:
Establish landscape-scale projects to restore and expand rainforest sites.
Identify how the Scottish Government could give greater priority to restoring Scotland's rainforest.
Encourage and enable landowners and managers to restore and expand the rainforest in core areas.
Work together to share ideas, information, knowledge and expertise to continually improve our understanding of how to best manage the rainforest.
Scotland's rainforest is not just globally significant for biodiversity and vital for its role in combating the climate emergency. It's also an important place for the people living and working there, providing permanent green jobs through habitat management and tourism, health and wellbeing benefits, and a green classroom for schoolchildren.
Restoring and expanding this unique habitat will help secure its biodiversity for the future, provide jobs, help to mitigate climate change, and allow everyone to enjoy the warm, wet magic of the rainforest for generations to come.
To find out more about Scotland's rainforest, visit: savingscotlandsrainforest.org.uk