Posted by Rick Worrell
I wonder why it has been so difficult over the years to convince forestry professionals that it is a good idea to have native woodlands at a scale that could be considered a native forest ? And why there has never been meaningful reference to this in forest policy ?
Most people seem content with small native woodlands, and a scattering of larger projects of few hundred hectares or so. But the idea that we should create new landscapes in which native woodland are a major feature, has never made its way into forestry policy. This is odd, because the few examples that we have – the pine forests of Glen Affric or Abernethy, or the oak woods around Loch Lomond – we value very highly – and foresters often take great pride in them. But there has always been a tangible resistance at policy level to creating any more. And with the exception of the few well-trumpeted exceptions, foresters have left it up to the conservation organisations and a few enlightened private estates to champion the cause, and lead the way. Scottish Natural Heritage’s “National Ecological Network”, which might have provided policy support for the idea, never seems to get off the ground. However hopefully that is now starting to change , one sign of which might be the appearance on the Forestry Commission Scotland website of pages on “Landscape Scale Ecological Restoration”.
The UK is relatively unique among temperate countries in only having very limited areas of native woodland at scales which could considered as “forest”. When the term native forest was first aired in the 1990s, no one could think of a simple way of defining it. Roy Dennis suggested woodland where it is possible to walk all day without coming out the other side – which has an intuitive appeal. Unfortunately, in most parts of Scotland, even the well wooded ones, you have to be fairly ingenious to find a route that keeps you walking in native woodland for more than 20 minutes or so. Stevens and Carlisle famously wrote of native pinewoods “ to stand in them is to feel history”; so, following Roy Dennis’s lead, we might venture for entertainment, that in native forests, “ to walk through them is to feel tired”. And we might hope for the day when citizens of Scotland can get tired walking though native forest in places other than the usual suspects in the northern Highlands.
Native forests are good things. It turns out that they are actually so good that the few examples we currently have are unerringly plastered with more conservation and landscape designations than you could shake a bureaucrat at. Scotland’s two National Parks are built around some of the best examples – which is no accident. A typical reaction to visiting these areas is that people feel vaguely transported to somewhere else – is this really still Scotland? No, it can’t be, we don’t have real forests like these. They often have important and intriguing histories – witness the large scale use of pine from Rothiemurchus for water-pipes in London, or the long-forgotten royal hunting forest at Glen Finglas. And they have taken with them remnants of cultural attachments between people and forests that have been lost everywhere else in Scotland. Importantly they can also help support serious local economic activity, mainly in the form of recreation and tourism, but timber can potentially make a decent showing too, such as in Deeside.
The FCS web pages make several important points. Landscape scale ecosystem restoration is not just about grabbing a mounder and a spade and plastering the landscape with native woodland. Landscape-scale woodland projects need to comprise not just woodland, but also heathland, wetland, wood pasture and montane habitats, managed together as habitat mosaics; and restoration can apply to open ground habitats such as degraded peatlands and wetlands, as well as woodland. Projects need to have very long time horizons and should aim simply to set habitats off on a trajectory over which managers exercise only limited control, rather than trying to prescribe outcomes closely. Some collaboration between neighbouring landowners is the ideal to be sought after. As a result, large “instant” new native woodland projects fall well short of what is required and can even be detrimental.
It would have been nice to have had more in the FCS webpages about potential timber production and how ecosystem restoration fits with farming, but maybe that will come.
The whole landscape-scale management idea seems to be coming of age – it appears for example in regional forest and woodland strategies and forest habitat networks, river basin management planning, green networks and strategic deer management plans. Scottish Wildlife Trust has its “Living Landscapes” programmes and RSPB its “Futurescapes”. Woodland Trust Scotland, Borders Forest Trust and National Trust Scotland are involved in landscape scale native woodland restoration at several of their properties. Forest Enterprise are doing their bit locally in places like Glenmore, Glengarry and Loch Katrine – as are SNH, for example at Creag Meagaidh. The Heritage Lottery fund has recently been supporting landscape scale projects and, in theory, SRDP supports large-scale collaborative projects. But what is odd is that these efforts appear to be emerging despite policy, rather than because of it.
The new FCS web pages show that the biodiversity end of Forestry Commission Scotland is behind the idea. It would be nice if forestry policy could catch up, acknowledge that some landscape scale native forests exist in Scotland, that they are good, and Scotland deserves more of them.
I once picked a Swedish hitch hiker on her way to start a job at the Kingshouse Hotel on Rannoch Moor. I asked her “Why there?“, she answered “Because the picture of the hotel showed no trees, I just wanted to get away from trees – we have so many trees in Sweden – you can drive all day and see nothing but trees”. Yes, to drive all day and not come out of the native forest is probably too much of a good thing, even in Sweden. But walking all day through native forest in Scotland – that shouldn’t be too much to ask.