Woodland wandering in the Highlands

Over the weekend we found out a lot about Scotland’s woodlands – or lack of them. From the top of Cairn Gorm it is clear just how treeless much of the land is, but it was not always so. Until around 5,000 years ago forest covered somewhere between 50-80% of Scotland and reached almost to the top of the Cairngorms. Nic, the ranger from Cairngorm Mountain, told us about some of the reasons that this is no longer the case: climatic changes towards a cooler and wetter environment resulting in pine decline and the rise of peat; land use management that cut down the trees (particularly during the wars) and sheep and deer grazing that prevented their return.

SAB-7582

The relatively treeless landscape in the Aviemore Region from the top of Cairn Gorm.

In the woodlands near our accommodation later that evening we saw some of the mountain scrub woodland that is now common in the Highlands – birch, rowan, alder and willow. We talked about why some trees made it to the UK and some didn’t, and what is driving reforestation today. We also thought a little bit about how different techniques to encourage new woodland (public bodies like the Forestry Commission, taxes, or grants) could produce different types of woodland. Finally, Sandra told us a little about treeline dynamics and what the major controls could be in Scotland. And we saw a beautiful sunset.

The next day we took a wander through the wonderfully wooded Rothiemurchus Estate. As well as thinking about age structure and sampling in forests (Sandra will say more on this), we looked at which trees were native and which were introduced – and what conflicts this might cause for conservation and management. In particular, the ecological niche-fillers of larch and chestnut, or the cultural stalwarts of beech, sycamore and many conifer species, are not native to Scotland. How then do we deal with these in woodlands?

Playing

Playing “native” or “non native” the tree ID game

I would leave you with three questions that we didn’t really get to discuss; something to think about on your autumn walks home:

  • Why does it matter what caused woodland to disappear in much of Scotland? Does it make a difference to why and how we manage woodland? Should we manage woodland at all?
  • How do we deal with conflicting woodland benefits? Should woodland be for ecological restoration? Or social betterment, recreational enjoyment, cultural or spiritual pleasure? What about timber and other economic benefits? Is it possible for all of these to happen in the same woodland?
  • How do we know if woodland is actually beneficial? What is it replacing? If trees take so long to grow, how do we evaluate benefits on any meaningful timescale that can inform our choices in the here and now?
Autumn leaves

Autumn leaves in Aviemore

There are not necessarily any right answers to these questions – they are some of the important research questions in woodland conservation science in Scotland today. If you have any thoughts or questions you’d like to discuss with me, please feel to get in touch (haydn.thomas@ed.ac.uk).

By Haydn (guest field trip demonstrator)

To read more on these issues check out Haydn’s paper in Forest Ecology and Management:
Thomas, Haydn JD, et al. 2015. Towards a research agenda for woodland expansion in Scotland. Forest Ecology and Management 349: 149-161.

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