Wednesday 27 May 2015

Reforesting the Hills

Bynack More rising above Abernethy Forest

This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors a year ago. I've been thinking about rewilding, forests and land use recently and have had various discussions on social media sites on related topics so I thought I'd post it here.

How wild and natural should the hills be? Do you want them tame and docile so the walking is easy and secure? I ask in response to an online comment from a TGO Challenger who likes sheep in the hills because they make walking 'very pleasant'. Now sheep-cropped grassland certainly is easy to walk across but it's also an artificial and biologically degraded landscape. Natural landscapes are wilder, more diverse and, for the walker, more challenging. Where the terrain is impossibly tough - dense forest, tangled bushes - the answer can be a path. I'd rather see a narrow trail through a wild and natural landscape than sheep-cropped terrain where it's easy to walk anywhere. And if there's no path then I'd rather find a way through the difficulties than have them tamed.

Regenerating forest in Coire Ardair, Creag Meagaidh

A bigger question is how to achieve more natural and diverse wild lands. Just what does that involve anyway? Ideally I think it means leaving land alone, leaving it to be 'self-willed'. However whilst that's fine for pristine and near-pristine places it may not be for more damaged ones. The question then becomes how much interference and management is acceptable. In turn this raises the question of how long you want to wait and whether the rewilding of a landscape can be speeded up. The answers vary depending on your outlook and aims. Aesthetically I think any management should be as unobtrusive and unnoticeable as possible. I also think such management also produces a more natural landscape in the long run. However I accept that in some places it just isn't possible, at least at present.

Recently I was in Eskdale in the Lake District where some extensive tree planting is being undertaken by the National Trust. Because this is sheep country the planted areas are fenced and the trees are caged. This looks highly unnatural. In time I guess the cages and fences will be removed and the forest will look more natural though it will still have straight lines dividing it from the bare land outside it. Less obtrusive is the work being done by Trees for Life in Glen Affric. Again planting is involved but the trees are not caged. The new forests are simply fenced in to keep out deer. Again the line between the rich vegetation inside the fence and the sparse boggy vegetation outside it is stark.

Scattered pines at the edge of Abernethy Forest
Contrast these schemes, both of which I support, with that of the RSPB in Abernethy in the Cairngorms, a huge reserve that stretches from the forests around Loch Garten of ospreys fame to the summit of Ben Macdui. Having heard that the RSPB was to plant areas that as far as I knew were already regenerating and pretty natural anyway I contacted the RSPB to find out what was going on and was invited on a field trip so I could see for myself (thanks to Regional Director George Campbell for organising this and also to Senior Site Manager Jeremy Roberts and Ecologist Andy Amphlett). Before we headed out to look at the area the scheme was explained and I was shown detailed maps of the forest divided into different types of area. No planting was going on in the mature natural forest or in areas where there was good regeneration I was told. Overgrazing isn't a problem in Abernethy now as deer numbers have been reduced and sheep removed. However there is a wide band of higher ground where the sheep used to graze that runs up to what should be the natural treeline of 650 metres where there are no trees at all and so no seed source for regeneration. There are also areas of previously felled and then planted forest where many tree species are absent. It's in these areas that the RSPB is planting small groups of trees to provide a seed source. The planted areas won't be extensive, just small clumps, and there will be no cages or fences.

New growth in Abernethy Forest

Out in the  field I was shown some aspen that had been planted on some heather moorland. I would never have know they weren't the product of natural regeneration. Higher up we found the last tiny pines, still well before the 650 metre line. It was clear that there would be no natural regeneration here for a very long time. The RSPB has set a 200 year goal for the return of the forest so even with the planting it will take a long time. For walkers there will be no discernable sign of this management, unlike in Eskdale and Glen Affric. That's because the RSPB owns the land and has control of grazing, which takes us back to the start of this piece and the question of what sort of landscape we want. For myself the idea of the returning forest is exciting and unspiring. I'll only see it beginning but that is a joy in itself.

A last pine, Strath Nethy, Abernethy

1 comment:

  1. As someone who would like to see the return of (among other species) the lynx, I see reforestation as an absolute priority. I don't expect to see forest habitat sufficiently restored to support reinstated lynx and wolves in my lifetime, but I'd like to see it as a priority for generations to come.