For the first
time in 2,000 years, Scots pine, alder, birch, hazel, holly, and
mountain ash are set to reclaim a large swath of the Scottish
Highlands. Using government funds, a private landowner plans to
plant 2.5 million trees over the next five years to create the
largest native woodland in Scotland. The effort marks a
nationwide move to restore the country's lost woodland.
The ancient Caledonian Forest
once covered the Scottish Highlands. Home to bears, beavers, and
wolves, its destruction began before the Bronze Age. The forest
began to fall to the scythe of climate change and the activities
of primitive tribes from pre-Roman times. Subsequent terror
campaigns launched by marauding Vikings burned down large areas
of forest. Later, farmers and fuel gatherers cleared away most
of what remained.
But today a new forest, called
Baile Mor, is being planted on more than 10,000 acres (4,000
hectares) of mountainous terrain near the north Atlantic fishing
port of Gairloch. The land is owned by John MacKenzie. His
ancestors have lived on the property since 1494.
Vestiges of the ancient forest
still grow on islands in Loch Maree, a freshwater lake that runs
along the new forest's western edge. Remnant pine trees found
there are now providing the seeds of recovery. Foresters are
using helicopters to airlift seedlings to the wild hills of
Largest Woodland Grant
Last year MacKenzie secured U.S.
$3.2 million from the Forestry Commission, a U.K. government
agency responsible for forestry throughout Britain. The sum
marks the biggest woodland grant ever awarded in Scotland. Work
is already well underway with 2.5 million native trees due to be
planted in the next five years.
"It's a positive, practical use
for a large piece of land that frankly was almost totally
useless," said MacKenzie.
"The forest should become a great
amenity for visitors and local folk. It will be wide open for
all and sundry to come along and enjoy it. There may even be
some economic benefit to the estate in terms of guided wildlife
walks and other tourism-related activities."
Although one local politician has
criticized the size of the grant, saying the money would be
better spent on public services, MacKenzie claims the
surrounding community has given the plan a universal thumbs-up.
"As well as giving people more
things to do, the forest will boost tourism which is enormously
important to Gairloch," he said. "We don't have ferris wheels or
piers with flashing lights. People come to the area because of
its natural beauty and wonderful wildlife."
As the forest matures,
conservationists hope to see threatened Highland animals
re-colonizing the area.
"It will provide a greater range
of prey species for golden eagles," said Kenny Nelson, South
West Ross officer for Scottish Natural Heritage, a government
conservation agency. "We also expect pine martens and wildcats
to move in. Birds now confined mainly to the east, like black
grouse, crested tits, and crossbills are others that should find
suitable habitat here."
Habitat for native species has
already been aided by the addition of 75,000 acres (30,000
hectares) of woodlands over the past 15 years in Scotland.
Biologists say the forest cover provides wildlife a habitat
corridor to use for westward migration.
A Growing Trend
The Forestry Commission pledges
to recreate another 75,000 acres (30,000 hectares) of Caledonian
pinewood by 2005.
This year, a new Scottish
forestry plan seeks to provide more incentives for private
landowners to plant Scots pine and broadleaf trees over
commercial, non-native species such as Sitka spruce. Unlike the
current program, a higher rate of payment will go to landowners
who create woodland of ecological and recreational value.
Baile Mor Forest represents a
growing trend in Scotland. In 1503, the nation's woodland was
utterly destroyed according to historical records. By 1900,
woodlands covered just five percent of the country. Today the
figure is 17 percent and rising. The target, say government
planners, is 25 percent by 2050.
The success of these regeneration
schemes isn't guaranteed, however. While human activity had a
major impact in the Highlands throughout history, the Caledonian
Forest's demise was hastened by climate change.
Climatic conditions like the
"Little Ice Age," which occurred between 1320 and 1750, brought
low summer temperatures, high rainfall, and ferocious winds to
the Scottish Highlands. These conditions encouraged the
formation of peaty moorland at the expense of trees.
But for now, at least, the new
pinewoods are doing well. An earlier 2,500-acre (1,000-hectare)
project on the Gairloch Estate is already bearing fruit after
just five years.
This winter, young mountain ash
trees are weighed down with scarlet berries while Scots pine
saplings flourish alongside their ancestors' gnarled remains.
John MacKenzie's ancestors might not believe their eyes as a
ghost of the old forest springs back to life.