Caledonian Pinewood Recovery: Findings from the field
Caledonian pinewoods are all different. Some are vast and span whole landscapes. Others are tiny relics clinging to the sides of steep gorges. Wet western pinewoods have more birch, oak and holly than their drier eastern counterparts. There are pinewood areas near the natural treeline where pines become stunted, while others grow from waterlogged peat and rocky slopes. But by far the greatest source of variation is neither the climate nor soil – instead, it is how the pinewood has been managed over time.
In 2018, we started work on our Caledonian Pinewood Recovery project to survey the health and resilience of Scotland’s remaining pinewoods. With a better understanding of why Scotland's pinewoods have suffered the way they have, we can take action to better manage, protect, expand and reconnect them.
The most common approach to nature restoration in Scotland up until this point has been the use of deer fences. Take a look at an effective deer fence and the surrounding landscape, and you begin to understand the scale of the problem. Fences, however, usually only cover a portion of a site - leaving some ancient trees unprotected. And deer fences without deer inside them are the exception rather than the rule. I found many ineffective fences where decades' worth of Scots pine regeneration had been lost. In other cases, Scots pine or birch regeneration took place at the expense of other trees, such as oak, holly and rowan.
How did we arrive at this point? Browsing by deer has been at a high enough level since the Highland Clearances in the 18th and 19th centuries to prevent young trees from growing across much of the Highlands. During the Clearances, people were forcibly removed from the land to make way for large-scale sheep ranching. During the 20th century, sheep ranching gave way to sport shooting, which encouraged high numbers of deer. By grazing on young trees, deer can change the age structure of a woodland, eventually leaving only old trees that are not replaced as they die. Heavy grazing also prevents undergrowth from developing, removing plants from the ground vegetation, and limiting flowering and fruiting. As a result, many areas of Caledonian pinewood cannot support the full range of wildlife that they once could.
The creation of commercial plantations in the 1950s presented a new challenge for Scotland's pinewoods. This often involved ploughing open areas, cutting down broadleaved trees and underplanting wild Scots pines with non-native conifers or commercial strains of Scots pine. As the commercial conifers grew, they starved wild trees of light and nutrients, leading centuries-old Scots pines to die. They also took up space that could otherwise support regeneration.
The focus shifted towards restoration in the 1990s, and much commercial conifer was removed. This helped prevent further damage and, in combination with increased deer management, allowed some recovery. Yet, not all commercial conifer plantations have been removed, and the regeneration of non-native conifers has become widespread. Landowners and managers' restoration measures, however, are having some impact - and we now better understand the challenges pinewood managers face. Landscape-scale deer management leads to landscape-scale natural woodland expansion. The healthiest pinewoods were found where deer populations had been brought down to levels compatible with ecosystem recovery across whole landscapes, rather than within fences.
Many of our Caledonian pinewoods are in trouble. But it is not too late for them. As a result of Caledonian Pinewood Recovery, we know what needs to be done to save and revive them. This work will require landscape-scale vision and collaboration - something that Affric Highlands will enable and encourage. We are currently engaging with several pinewood managers within the Affric Highlands area, and we are hopeful that our proposals for restoration will be agreed upon soon. Caledonian Pinewood Recovery found that there is more to securing pinewood health than just ecology. Having good, collaborative relationships between people is fundamental.
Caledonian Pinewood Recovery has been made possible by grant funding from Esmeé Fairbairn Foundation, Woodland Trust Scotland, Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, Garfield Weston Foundation, HDH Wills Charitable Trust and the Paul and Louise Cooke Endowment as well as generous donations from many of our supporters.