Carnach Mor

Downy birches and Scots pines in the southwest of the Carnach Mor exclosure, looking towards the Youth Hostel at Alltbeithe, showing the open nature of the young woodland.

Carnach Mor is a 25 hectare exclosure that we erected on the West Affric Estate in 1996. It was the third in a series of ten fenced areas that we established between 1994 and 2000 in partnership with the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) for forest restoration on their 4,000 hectare (10,000 acre) estate, which encompasses the headwaters of the Affric River, at the west end of Glen Affric.

The exclosure protects a lower section of the south-facing slope of the peak, An Socach, which is one of the ‘Munros’ ( as hills over 3,000 feet in elevation are called in Scotland) in the glen. The exclosure takes its name from the Gaelic place name for the hillside, ‘Carnach Mor’, which means ‘great stony place’. It’s a very fitting description as the slope is characterised by a lot of rocks and boulders, many of which are covered in moss and must have fallen, over time, from the craggy rock face higher up. On the steeper sections of the slope, outside the exclosure, this rocky terrain enabled some old rowans to grow and thrive, out of reach of deer, and a solitary young pine was growing there at an elevation of 450 metres when Adam Powell, our Field Officer at the time, first surveyed the area in October 1992.

Carnach Mor was the first area where we planted trees on West Affric, as the two earlier exclosures, Coire Ghaidheil and Allt Beithe Garbh, were both planned exclusively for natural regeneration. With only a handful of old trees growing outside the fence at Carnach Mor, the opportunities for natural regeneration there were much more limited, although 25% of the area was left for trees to grow there spontaneously. In the remaining 18 hectares our volunteers planted a total of 15,500 trees in autumn 1996 and spring 1997. These were mostly broadleaved trees, especially downy birch, rowan and eared willow, but also including some alder, aspen and juniper. Crucially, we also planted some Scots pines there – this was the only site on West Affric where NTS agreed to have pines planted. In their view the area would naturally have had only broadleaves, but because of the lone young pine occurring just above the exclosure, they accepted that some could also be planted inside it.

The planting was done at a relatively low density, to allow for natural regeneration, and to create an open woodland, and this is readily apparent from the distribution of the trees in the exclosure today. Not all the planted trees survived, due to the harsh climate and very exposed aspect of the site, but those that did so are growing well now. Some of the Scots pines began flowering several years ago, and have been producing cones and seed since then. They provide the opportunity for further natural spontaneous regeneration of new pines there, and some very young rowans can be seen in various parts of the exclosure, having grown from seeds brought in by birds that ate the berries of mature rowans elsewhere.

Alan Watson Featherstone and planted downy birches and Scots pines in the Carnach Mor exclosure in June 2012, 15 years after the planting was completed.

The same group of planted birches and Scots pines in August 2015. The fern next to the boulder illustrates how a greater diversity of ground vegetation is developing in the absence of excessive grazing pressure.


With the trees there now well-established, other parts of the forest ecosystem are returning spontaneously. Wherever the trees are clustered closely together and growing well, blaeberry plants are growing in their shade. Ferns as such golden-scaled male fern have sprung up in some places, and bracken is growing profusely in other areas. Significantly, the young woodland is providing a habitat for invertebrates, such as the striped bright micro-moth in one of the photographs. The larvae of this species feed by making mines in the leaves of birch trees, so they’ve been able to make this area their home again, as it recovers from many centuries of being tree-less. Insects such as this and the muscid fly on the opening buds of a Scots pine are food for birds, and they in turn bring in seeds of rowans and blaeberry plants, amongst others, in their gut. Acting as dispersal agents for those species, the birds help move the forest restoration process further forward.

As with the other fenced areas on West Affric, Carnach Mor is a key element in the sequence of ‘stepping stones’ of new woodland we’re helping to establish in the area. Over time, these will form the basis of a Forest Habitat Network that stretches from the native pinewoods at the eastern end of Glen Affric through to the West Coast.

Old rowan trees at Carnach Mor November 1992
Planted downy birches and Scots pines with a naturally-regenerating rowan seedling and blaeberry plants growing in the shade of the trees, in the southwest of the Carnach Mor exclosure.
Female cone (or ‘flower’) and new needles just emerging from their sheaths on one of the planted Scots pines in the Carnach Mor exclosure.
Male muscid fly (Thricops cunctans) on the ‘candling’ buds of a Scots pine at Carnach Mor.
Striped bright micro-moth (Phylloporia bistrigella) on the leaf of a planted birch tree in Carnach Mor in June 2012. 

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