Trees for Life magazine, Caledonia Wild! Summer 2002
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A new discovery in the forest
This summer I've found myself being increasingly attracted to the invertebrates of the Caledonian Forest - every time I go out to Glen Affric I've been seeing more and more dragonflies, moths, slugs, beetles and other insects. Somehow my path seems to be crossings theirs' on a more regular basis than in the past, perhaps reflecting an inner change in me, towards a greater interest in the little creatures of the forest.
No doubt I've also been affected by reading the work of Edward O. Wilson, the world-renowned entomologist and professor at Harvard University, who has written so eloquently about 'the little things that run the world':
"Quite simply, the terrestrial world is turned by insects and a few other invertebrate groups: the living world would probably survive the demise of all vertebrates, in greatly altered form of course, but life on land and in the sea would collapse down to a few simple plants and microorganisms without invertebrates."
Perhaps my increasing affinity with the miniature wildlife is also a natural one, given the absence of megafauna in the Caledonian Forest, as a result of the historical extirpation of most of the large mammal species, such as the brown bear, lynx, moose and beaver, by humans. The forest has obviously survived those losses, albeit in an impaired and incomplete form, but the insects and other invertebrates are still there, fulfilling their essential roles in the woodland ecosystem.
In any event, I've discovered a real fascination with the diversity, life cycles and ecological functions of these smaller denizens of the forest - there is literally a whole new world to explore, about which I've only known a little up until now. In the past three months, however, I've watched a couple of dor beetles (dung beetles of the Caledonian Forest) following each other over the miniature terrain of the forest floor; I've observed a pair of black slugs in mating embrace, forming a living yin-yang shape around their white sperm and egg mass; and I've spent a couple of absorbing hours looking at wood ants - I've seen the winged males emerge and climb trees for their nuptial flights, and I've observed workers carrying their larvae in and out of the nests.
One day, I was particularly intrigued to see some ants cutting up pieces of a bright orange fungus which was growing out of a fallen pine, and transporting bits of it back to their nest. I spent a while taking photographs of this, and when I subsequently contacted a specialist on wood ants, I was surprised to learn that he had never heard of this before - he encouraged me to write up my observations for a specialist entomological journal, as it is possibly a behaviour which has not been seen before.
While I'm very inspired that I may have discovered something new about wood ants in the Caledonian Forest, I'm also reminded that there is undoubtedly much more to be learned about the invertebrates and their role in the forest ecosystem. A number of other discoveries have been made in recent years, including the identification of a previously unknown beetle species in the Abernethy pinewoods, and a species of fly associated with dead aspen wood in Scotland which was new to science. With the knowledge that invertebrates are essential parts of the forest community, and my newly-discovered affinity with them, I can hardly wait until my next trip out to Glen Affric...
Alan Watson Featherstone
Summer hangs quiet...
The flowering of Grudie oakwood
As regular readers of Caledonia Wild! know, Grudie oakwood is a lovely site overlooking Loch a'Chuillin in the very north of our target area. Here we are gradually removing non-native conifers to help the regeneration of natural woodland. Last year we conducted a survey of the site to determine the extent and nature of tree cover, to help us target our efforts more effectively. Further information is being provided this year by the Inverness Botany Group who surveyed the site in June for ground flora. I look forward to seeing their report and species list, as the forest floor vegetation is a subject that we are becoming increasingly interested in. Ground flora is an essential part of the woodland environment and consists of many species that cannot survive without tree cover, so we will be looking at the possible reintroduction of species once the trees in our newly planted areas mature.
Regenerating woodland flora
- a next stage in the forest restoration process
In June Paul Kendall and Dan Puplett attended a one day seminar on the management of flora in new woodland hosted by the Woodland Trust (WT) in Fife. Most of the day revolved around the WT's nearby New Woods Ground Flora Project, where native wildflowers were being introduced to the site of a newly created community woodland. As well as presenting the results and lessons learned from this project, there were presentations about the ability of insects to colonise introduced woodland plants and on issues of plant origin, which stressed the need to preserve local diversity. The afternoon was spent visiting the site, during which there was time for further discussion about the methods used. Useful contacts with other delegates, such as growers and suppliers of native wildflower seed, were also made.
Though the conditions the WT are working with are different in significant ways to Trees for Life's areas of work (for example, until recently, the WT site was arable farm land), there were nevertheless many interesting lessons which could be adapted to woodland flora reintroduction in a Highland setting. As a result, we are now looking at how we can stimulate the return of woodland flora early on in the forest restoration process. To initiate this, we intend to carry out some detailed ground flora surveys in some of the exclosures in Glen Affric in the near future. These will enable us to determine the level of native flora still present, to designate some trial areas for reintroduction of scarce or missing flora, and to start collecting local native seed, for growing on either at our nursery or in cooperation with a specialist nursery.
From our own observations in Glen Affric, we've noticed that flowers such as primroses, violets and bluebells are increasing in numbers and range at the eastern end of the glen, with the spring of this year in particular showing quite a marked increase. We suspect that this may be due to the removal of sheep from the area several years ago. We learned at the seminar that bluebells, for example, take seven years to flower for the first time, so it's possible that we're now seeing a natural spread of these wildflowers in the absence of the previous excessive grazing pressure. Wildflowers such as bluebells are completely absent from the western parts of the glen, where the impact of the 30,000 sheep which used to graze in Affric was much greater, so it may be that these plants will need to be replanted there - we hope that the surveys we're planning will help us determine the need for this.
Paul Kendall and Alan Watson Featherstone
Glen Affric National Nature Reserve officially launched
Following the approval by Scottish Natural Heritage at the end of 2000 of almost 15,000 hectares of land managed by Forest Enterprise in Glen Affric as a new National Nature Reserve, a public launch for this took place on the 26th and 27th of April this year. A special ceremony was held in the village of Cannich, attended by invited dignitaries and local people, and this was addressed by the chairmen of Scottish Natural Heritage, the Forestry Commission and the Strathglass Community Development Group (representing the people who live in the vicinity of Glen Affric). Guided walks, some of them led by Trees for Life staff, took place in the glen, and a range of other activities were organised for visitors.
The event was very successful, gaining substantial coverage in the Scottish media, and the new status of Glen Affric as a National Nature Reserve gives the area the highest statutory protection for land in Scotland. This, in turn, will ensure the long-term continuation of the restoration work for the forest there, which is already the longest-running for any of the Caledonian Forest remnants in Scotland.
We're pleased to have been able to contribute since 1989 to the practical management of the Forest Enterprise land in Glen Affric, which has led to this new designation, and we look forward to the opportunities provided by the National Nature Reserve status to further the restoration of the forest there.
Mountain Woodland Restoration Project
We define mountain woodland as the progression of woodland types from the valley floor to the natural tree line and beyond to encompass montane scrub. This continuum is extremely scarce in Scotland with most woodlands coming to an abrupt end below open heather moorland. Montane scrub is almost non-existent as a vegetation community, with species being represented by isolated clumps or individuals, as with dwarf willows (Salix spp.), or restricted in height and distribution by browsing, as with dwarf birch (Betula nana) and juniper (Juniperus communis). Tree line and montane scrub vegetation provides an important habitat for birds, insects, mammals and other plant species as well as having a positive visual impact on the landscape. They are composed of normal woodland tree species, such as Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), birch (Betula spp.), rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and aspen (Populus tremula), which are stunted by exposure at higher elevations, and truly dwarf species such as dwarf birch, juniper, several species of willow and the scarce rock whitebeam (Sorbus rupicola).
New exclosure completed on the Dundreggan Estate
I am delighted to report that the new fence is now in place on the Dundreggan Estate in Glen Moriston, protecting an area of 5 hectares (12.5 acres) for the recovery of dwarf birch and other montane scrub species. With this area safe from grazing, all the constituent species there can develop and grow to form a unique montane scrub vegetation community. As the exclosure is just a few hundred metres beyond a native woodland planting scheme, it will also provide the potential for the full progression of woodland types from the valley floor to the tree line referred to above. Situated 6 kilometres east of our other dwarf birch exclosure on the Balnacarn Estate, it provides another stepping stone in the restoration of the montane scrub community in the area.
This new exclosure a particularly exciting development for a number of reasons. The privately-owned Dundreggan Estate is a new location for us and it is very encouraging to see the owner undertaking an extensive new native woodland planting scheme, the plan for which we helped shape with vegetation survey work. I was impressed by the Estate's willingness to follow up on this with the montane scrub fence which increases the scope of the project and enhances the potential for woodland linkages over the high ground between Glen Moriston and Glen Affric. With the work we have been doing on the Allt na Muic project, on Ceannacroc and Balnacarn Estates to the west, and the new plantings on Wester Guisachan to the north, this concept is moving ever closer to reality.
This site, on the south side of Glen Moriston, is owned and managed for woodland conservation by Forest Enterprise (FE) and contains all the elements necessary for the establishment of a woodland continuum including the dwarf scrub vegetation zone. It is comprised of plantation on lower ground, with pockets of Caledonian pine and broadleaf woodland, and open moorland dominated by heather (Calluna vulgaris) on the high ground, where dwarf birch, juniper, eared willow (Salix aurita) and creeping willow (Salix repens) have all been noted. Our proposal that it become a Mountain Woodland Demonstration Project has been met with a warm reception from FE so we are currently developing this idea in more detail and we hope that practical implementation of it will begin next year. As a demonstration project, it will hopefully encourage others to take a broader perspective on native woodland restoration, incorporating the tree line community in plans and projects.
Both of these initiatives are based on recommendations arising from Anne Matthews' survey work conducted last summer, demonstrating that even our more 'academic' work does have a practical outcome. Meanwhile, Anne is busy again this year, together with her assistant Janice Short, braving the midges, building on her previous work.
Networking and liaison with other projects
At the beginning of July, Anne and I visited two projects managed by other members of the Montane Scrub Action Group (MSAG). This was a great opportunity to see the work that others are doing, to share information and ideas and to see the magnificent Perthshire countryside. The first site we visited is a Scottish Agricultural College property near Crianlarich where a demonstration project has been set up to investigate the viability of combining native woodland and hill sheep farming. The 300 hectare (750 acre) native woodland scheme was planted in 1998 with mixed native broadleaf trees and Scots pine. The intention is to take down the fences and allow sheep to graze the area during the summer months once the trees are mature enough. It is hoped that this will provide shelter and better grazing for the animals whilst offering the potential, through sensitive management of the new woodland, for small scale harvesting of timber and for the creation of a woodland habitat for many other species. High on the hill tops there are some dwarf willow species which, if deer numbers can be brought down, would once again complete the woodland continuum picture. Many thanks to John Holland for showing us around this interesting project.
The second site we visited was the National Trust for Scotland's Ben Lawers Nature Reserve, above Loch Tay where we saw two projects designed to regenerate herb-rich birch woodland. This has survived on the site in the form of a scattering of trees on steep crags with the accompanying diversity of ground flora typical of base-rich soils in these situations. Firstly, David Mardon, the reserve manager, showed us a 25 hectare (37.5 acre) area that was deer fenced 13 years ago and sparsely planted with birch. He raised several species of flowering plants, and willows and juniper, to supplement the much reduced ground flora, planting them in strategic locations on the site. Distinct zoning of the vegetation has resulted from the absence of grazing, with lichen and heather on ridges and an abundant diversity of flowering plants on the richer, moister soils near the stream. The degree of recovery provides a convincing demonstration of the success of this project.
Walking to the second exclosure, we came across several interesting botanical finds including moonwort (Botrychium lunaria), which is a small fern with a single frond accompanied by a stalk with a collection of spherical spore capsules; and Scottish asphodel (Tofieldia pusilla) growing in similar conditions to the common bog asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum) - this little white-flowered member of the lily family is a rarity confined to mountains in Scotland and parts of northern England. The fence at this location encloses a large area around part of the Tarmachan Ridge and regeneration of the herb rich birch woodland clinging to the cliff is under way. Birch and several species of dwarf willow are establishing themselves below the cliff with angelica (Angelica sylvestris), globe flower (Trollius europaeus), grass of parnassus, (Parnassia palustris), frog orchid (Coeloglossum viride), and many more ground flora species which have managed to survive on the steep ground.
It is very encouraging to visit projects like this where others are working towards similar goals as ourselves, to compare notes and realise that they are experiencing comparable challenges and also to see our activities in the context of the bigger picture of widespread montane scrub restoration that is emerging.
We continue to be actively involved with the MSAG, attending meetings at which we are part of formulating ideas to promote the mountain woodland habitat. In terms of active projects on the ground, it is also apparent that we are one of the front runners in this field. However, as important as it is to talk about these issues, and to get other people talking too, there is nothing quite like escaping from the office and seeing the ideas translated into action!
See Caledonia Wild! magazines, for excerpts from other editions.
Published: Summer 2002
Last updated: 25 August 2010