Recreating Scotland’s great forests – And photographing them.2020VISION photographer Niall Benvie reports from the pine woods of his home country and what is being done to restore them.
It's sometimes easy to forget just how far north Scotland is. Trace a line westwards from where I live and eventually you would come to Churchill, Manitoba - famed for its polar bears - cut across the Alaska Peninsula and first encounter Russia in Kamchatka. But thanks to the ameliorating effect of the North Atlantic Drift, north-west Europe remains several degrees warmer on average than is the case on the western side of the ocean. Were it not for the movement of water from the tropics (keeping at bay the North Atlantic Oceanic Polar Front) we would live in a very different landscape. Perhaps even one with bears in it.
Glen Feshie - Photo credit Mark Hamblin
Top tips for photographing in pinewoods
World's great forest
So while we may have only the scantiest covering of tundra (on the high Cairngorms), Britain does have the most western extension of the massive boreal forest that stretches eastwards through northern Scandinavia, Siberia and Canada. It is our part of the true north. But it is a frayed edge, much diminished by the onset of cooler, wetter weather about 4500 years ago and 1500 years later, by Bronze Age farmers. Today, perhaps one percent of the original 1.5 million ha of the "Wood of Caledon" remains and too often these remnants are scattered and disconnected. If we are to enjoy the full benefits of the boreal forest we need to reconnect these and expand their area.
So what good is native pine forest? What do we need it for? The answers to some extent depend on the store you set on keeping your home in good order. We can, of course, survive in a place with a leaking roof, overgrown garden and rotten wood work but isn't the experience of living somewhere that is well maintained much more satisfying? The asset you have to pass on to your children is certainly worth more. Practically, pine forests sequester carbon and are net producers of oxygen. They provide shelter, building materials, fuel and stability for fragile mineral soils. They are sponges that regulate the flow of water into rivers. These things all matter to society: if the pine forests didn't happen to do this for us (for free) then we would have to pay directly, or indirectly through our taxes, to stop a part of our "home" from becoming derelict.
‘Wood of Caledon' wildlife
To those who have spent any time amongst the old pines, stilling themselves so intensely that they feel part of the forest, the Wood of Caledon is more than a mere provider of ecological services. It's home to some of the most charismatic animals in the land: red squirrels; crested tits; crossbills; pine martens; red deer and Capercaillie. These creatures provide a link to greater boreal realm far beyond these shores, and encourage the imagination to roam.
Those who are working to reconnect and expand our boreal forest practise "cathedral thinking": the results won't be seen in their own lifetimes but they are driven by a vision of what could be, often informed by having seen wild boreal forests on the Continent.
Trees for Life
Trees for Life is a charity working hard to restore wild woodland in the Highlands, not for any utilitarian reasons but simply for its own sake; it believes that culturally were are enriched by having extensive natural forests. In practical terms, the long term deforestation of most of the Highlands and intense leaching of nutrients that has resulted, has been disastrous for biodiversity and abundance: re-establishing woodland is the first step in improving nutrient cycling in the landscape.
|Capercaillie have one last stronghold in |
Britain, in the Scottish forests.
Photo credit Mark Hamblin.
Increasing woodland cover
Woodland regeneration is about a lot more than simply planting trees in empty glens. A forest's vitality begins with the mass of tiny threads, known as hyphae, woven through the soil and around plants' roots. These form the main "body" of the fungi (mycelium) and without these partnerships, trees would be unable to access vital nutrients from decaying vegetation. Their roots are also shielded from disease and harmful chemicals in the soil by the mycelium. Trees for Life ideally, prefers to work with existing woodlands and improves their capacity to spread by keeping deer and sheep out of adjacent areas. Given the presence of the vital mycelium, new woodland should generate and spread. Planting seedlings (of local provenance) in open areas is sometimes less reliable (especially if the mycelial network has compromised) but the only option available throughout much of the Highlands.
In the meantime, Trees for Life's work in concentrated on its 4000 ha Dundreggan Estate to the west of Loch Ness which was acquired in 2008. Native tree cover is currently very restricted but Trees for Life aims to restore woodland to 60% of the estate within the next 25 years. It will then link to neighbouring woodlands, including those of Glen Affric, creating a larger, more ecologically viable network. The work of repairing the Highlands has begun.
Whether, in time, these wild woods are home again by lynx and other large predators is largely a political question but one mammal that has recovered from a century or more of sustain persecution and taken advantage of new woodland is the pine marten. For many bed and breakfast guests in the Highlands the captivating sight of this apricot-fronted weasel at a bird table is just a taster of the wild encounters that a reforested landscape could offer.
More about Trees for Life
Read Niall Benvie's article about Conserving the Scottish uplands - 2020VISION iWitness assignment to Assynt and Coigach