At the end of the last ice-age, 15,000 years ago, Scotland was a frozen land covered in thick glaciers where nothing could grow. As the ice rapidly melted, the bare rock was colonised so that by 7,000 years ago most of Scotland was covered in a rich, diverse forest. In the Highlands, the Caledonian Forest characterised by Scots pine trees was a huge wilderness of about 15,000km2. Among the trees were great herds of grazing animals – including wild cattle – which were preyed upon by lynx, wolf and other predators. This great forest was home to an intricate web of life and humans had little, if any influence over it.
About 6,000 years ago the climate became wetter, allowing peat bogs to grow and this caused some of the Caledonian Forest to disappear. However, humans had a much bigger effect. They began felling trees often for fuel, buildings and later to make way for farming. By the 1700s the Caledonian Forest remained in only the most remote places, but this too was mostly felled, often for shipbuilding. Much of the wildlife that depended on the forest was also lost, either through hunting or because there was just not enough forest left. The last wolf is thought to have been shot in Scotland in 1743, meaning that all of the large animals had gone, except for red deer, an animal that has symbolised the Highlands since the 19th century.
By the 1950s only about 1% of the original Caledonian Forest remained in about 80 small isolated patches from near Ullapool in the north, to Loch Lomond in the south and eastwards towards Aberdeen. They were oases of wild forest, providing refuges for capercaille, crested tits and red squirrels; the last remaining remnants of a once wild forest.
The realisation that the great forest that once covered the Highlands was almost gone encouraged many to take action, including Alan Watson Featherstone who founded Trees for Life. Since 1993 the charity has been working tirelessly to restore the Caledonian Forest, especially in Glen Affric where one of the most important fragments of Caledonian Forest survived and at Dundreggan, a Highland estate the charity bought in 2008. Not only has Trees for Life brought Scots pine back to areas it had been lost from for generations, but it has grown rare trees such as aspen and mountain top willows and birches so that the full range of trees can grow in the new forest. The charity is now recognised as one of the leading experts in wild forest restoration in Scotland and its Dundreggan tree nursery continues to strive to ensure enough rare and hard to grow trees are available to be planted in the Highlands.
Trees for Life recognised that the Caledonian Forest is more than trees, but an intricate web of life, that should include the full range of wildlife that originally grew there. This includes large predators such as wolf and lynx, forest grazers such as wild cattle and special plants such as twinflower. The charity has returned red squirrels to forests in the North West Highlands where the animal had not lived for over 50 years and it has sought to bring back beavers to rivers and lochs that are its natural home. This is because without the full web of life that make up the forest, it cannot thrive and grow naturally.
Trees for Life is now working to ensure the Caledonian Forest grows from the last patches of the original wild forest that remain so it can grow again in large areas of Scotland. The charity is also seeking to ensure the wild forest can grow at a scale that enables rewilding to happen so nature can look after itself, especially around Glen Affric and Glenmoriston where it has worked for many years.
While human activity has been the cause of the loss of so much forest in Scotland and around the world, people are vital to its future. Much of the work Trees for Life has done so far has been with the help of thousands of volunteers who have joined us to return forest to remote mountains. Working to grow a new wild forest in an inspirational setting has changed many lives. As we work in more places at a bigger scale we know that landowners, local communities and business need to thrive alongside the wild forest. This means working together to strike the right balance between a forest that can take care of itself and humans being able to make a living from it. We take inspiration from other parts of the world where wild forests full of wildlife also provide work for people who use its riches wisely.
The new wild forest we are working to create will benefit everyone: helping to reduce the impacts of climate change by storing carbon; preventing flooding and erosion by holding back water after rain and; providing opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people to experience and be inspired by wild nature. We know if we can achieve this in Scotland nature and people can thrive together, forever.