Planting at Carn na Caorach, Dundreggan – Update

Last week, at Dundreggan, our plan to enrich biodiversity through a woodland planting project went astray. Parts of Carn na Caorach – a hillside with a mosaic of upland habitat, rising to just over 600m – are to be planted with native trees at low density to create an extensive, patchy area of montane woodland. These extremely rare habitats – once common, but now almost vanished across Scotland following centuries of over-grazing – can play a major role in creating ecological connections across a landscape and particularly in linking one glen with the next over high ground. They also provide homes for wildlife such as golden eagle, ring ouzel and mountain hare. This is an important and groundbreaking project to help save these habitats.

For reasons largely resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, as the planting began there was some inadvertent planting in blanket peat. This was never our intention, and we have taken rapid action to rectify things while learning some valuable lessons for the future.

In normal circumstances during spring and autumn, we host hundreds of volunteers at Dundreggan who are supported by experienced guides as they help us plant native trees and restore the forest. Because the Coronavirus pandemic has made our volunteer programme impossible this year, we are using contractors to help us plant the trees so generously contributed by our supporters. After planting started last week, it quickly became clear that our instructions to the contractors needed to be more specific about where trees should be planted to avoid planting into deep peat.

Fortunately, planting has not been underway for long and the area planted is confined. We have moved quickly to prevent any further planting onto this type of ground, and taken action to minimise the effects of what has happened. We will replant the trees elsewhere and will replace the hand-dug mounds in their holes.

Naturally, we’ve also asked ourselves how this came about. The project was planned using a combination of map-based soils data and site survey, which indicated the presence of deep peat intermixed with heathland, rocky ground and a small area of dry grassland habitat.  We used peat probes to analyse the soil map information and draw a detailed map for our planting contractors to avoid peat areas. We now realise we failed to place enough emphasis on this in our briefings to them.  Some of this is a result of Covid restrictions affecting our ability to meet the contractors face-to-face, but we also feel we should have been more careful to prevent this happening in the first place.

Peatlands are of huge value – as carbon stores and as habitats with real importance to biodiversity –and as part of our work rewilding the Highlands, we take action to help restore them. For example, we’ve used Peatland Action to allow us to restore 17 hectares of peatland on an area from which we removed a non-native conifer plantation recently, while our volunteers have contributed to peatland damming on Forestry and Land Scotland ground in Glen Affric.  As members of the Scottish Rewilding Alliance, we advocate for the protection and restoration of peatlands.

We’ve also seen peatlands with largely intact drainage holding slow-growing native trees as a bog woodland habitat. Some experts argue that these bog woodlands – which house both trees and healthy hummocks of peat-building bog mosses – may sequester carbon faster than either woodlands or tree-free bogs. We don’t believe carbon should be the only driver in decisions about Highland land use change, but have read recently published research on these issues with great interest, and remain in no doubt about the need to know more about carbon flows between soil, vegetation and the atmosphere.  Specifically for this reason, we played a leading role in forming a partnership, and applying for funding, specifically to prioritise the research needs for understanding how native tree planting and natural regeneration affect soil carbon. Two weeks ago, we were delighted to learn that our application to Future Woodlands Scotland has been successful. Next week sees the first project delivery meeting with our key partners, the Forest Policy Group and the Native Woodland Discussion Group. Other parties to the project’s development include the James Hutton Institute, University of Highlands and Islands, and Scottish Environment Link. We hope this will be just the start of broad collaborative working on this subject in the run up to next year’s UN Climate Change summit, COP26 in Glasgow.