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Forest to Be Restored to Scottish Highlands

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 Baile Mor.

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.

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