Saturday 29 June 2024

Where are the trees? Thinking about the environment along the Cape Wrath Trail.

A solitary rowan growing out of a boulder in An Caorann Mor between Loch Cluanie and Glen Affric

The Cape Wrath Trail, most of which I walked a few weeks ago, is mainly a low level route. There are some high passes but mostly it follows glens. It is a walk through the mountains rather than over them. I was aware that most of the time I was at a lower elevation than my home in Strathspey at 300 metres. It didn’t feel like it though. It felt higher and more mountainous than it is, the surroundings hard and harsh.

The Allt Feithe Chailleach. Just 225 metres above sea level. There should be trees.

The reason, I quickly realised, is the lack of trees. So much of the route is in bare, over-grazed, treeless glens. Being used to the Cairngorms with its extensive and increasing forest cover I missed the trees.

Regenerating forest in a fenced area in Glen Loyne

Paradoxically, the absence is most noticeable where there are trees. The frequent dark blocks of spruce plantations show that trees will grow here as do the rather fewer fenced areas of regenerating forest. The bare land around these forest islands is not natural. It is the result of over-grazing by deer and sheep. And this doesn’t just mean no trees. It means poor overall biodiversity. Inside the fences the undergrowth is thick and lush and there is much bird song. Outside the vegetation is low and species poor. Bird song is absent. In many areas a distant cuckoo was all I heard.

Scots pine forest in Glen Garry

Beginning the walk along the Great Glen I was in woods much of the first day and a half, some of it natural or semi-natural, rather more of it plantation. After leaving the trees in Glen Garry I was only in woods for short periods. Too often the few trees in the landscape were solitary rowans growing out of clefts in rocks or thin lines of mixed woodland along the sides of steep ravines, all out of reach of the deer.

Mixed woodland on the steep banks of the river Douchary

The differences were exemplified by a section between Inverlael and Oykel Bridge in the northern half of the walk. The path descends Glen Douchary through a ribbon of trees on steep banks with the river rushing down below. Life flourishes. Birds sing. The land feels alive. 

Loch an Daimh. A sad landscape after the joy of Glen Douchary.

The glen is left for a walk above long Loch an Daimh. The trees vanish. No birds sing. The land is sour. Life struggles here. This is what the summits far above are like but here it’s only 200 metres above sea level. There should be a glorious forest lining the loch.

Fenced forest regeneration standing out in Glen Loyne

There are changes, shown by the areas fenced for regeneration, often aided by planted native species, but these aren’t that big. Still, I’d rather some trees than none and the resulting chequerboard pattern of healthy and unhealthy terrain is better than nothing, jarring though it looks.

Clear-cut hillside in Glen Garry

In many areas plantations have been clear-cut, leaving ugly devastated sweeps of hillside slashed with bulldozed roads. If left to regenerate these could become new forests in future decades though it takes time for such brutal scars to heal. Some no doubt will be replanted with packed rows of spruce for future clear-cuts, though hopefully not many.

Fine scenery in Glen Gnionhaidh but where are the trees?

The Cape Wrath Trail should be a walk in the woods. It isn’t. It is still an enjoyable, challenging and impressive walk. I wouldn’t want to deter anybody from hiking it. But if you go think about what you see, think about trees. And give support to those who would see them return, who want to rewild the land.


  1. Unfortunately, the pace of renaturalisation of the Highlands is really slow.

  2. Have you seen this?
    It seems to be deer or salmon.

  3. What a great thoughtful piece. Would be nice to see native woodland springing to life. We deforested much of the U.K. a long time ago.